Monday, December 29, 2008

Closing Year 4 with a Guided Tour of WORDS ON THE LINE

Here is my last Words on the Line post of 2008, post number 240, the end of the fourth year of running this blog on effective writing at work, school, and home. Many pearls of wisdom from master writers, insightful students, and my research are buried among the 59,000 words scattered throughout this site. How can you unearth some of them? Here are three ways:

  1. Search a topic in the upper-left search box. For instance, if you type in pronouns or style, you’ll get plenty to read.
  2. Browse the general topics under Labels in the right column. The topics cover the most common issues on interest to business, technical, and academic writers.
  3. Write to me! If you don’t find an answer to your writing question here, I’ll be glad to respond to your questions.

Here’s to the beginning of Year 5 of this blog and to your writing success!

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

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Friday, December 26, 2008

New Book in the Works

My third book on writing, on the topic of writing fast at work, is due for publication by AMACOM Books, a leading publisher of business management, communication, and leadership titles. Tentatively titled In a Heartbeat: Writing Fast at Work, the book is based on How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday, a one-day course I designed for the American Management Association, the parent organization of AMACOM.

The book will include tips on getting started quickly, overcoming writer’s block, generating ideas, rewriting proficiently, planning for emergency writing situations, and many other issues related to writing productivity. It should appear on shelves by mid-2009.

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

To purchase your copy of The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Friday, December 19, 2008

The "Old-is-New" for Inspired Writing

A new writing instructor asked me for advice on what she could do to motivate her students to write engaging prose. Now there’s a simple question that gets an endless answer! Numerous techniques are available, so when I teach rhetorical writing I use specific prompts based on student interest, aptitude, and experience. I especially like using the old-is-new. It’s a device that many successful creative writers play, unconsciously or not, when spinning amazing tales that capture their readers’ hearts and imaginations.

When playing the old-is-new, writers look for a fresh detail about someone, someplace, or something familiar to them. Look at a photograph that has hung on a wall in your house for years, searching for a feature you haven’t noticed before. Maybe you never paid attention to what the person in the picture is wearing, or the budding oak tree, white picket fence, or sailboat in the background. Maybe you can recall an event from local or world history that was occurring around that time to make the picture more significant. When I recently saw a picture of myself as a ten-year-old boy in the peaceful country of Malta, I was struck by how at that very moment in history race riots were occurring throughout the United States. Only a month after that moment, Malta officially gained its independence from Great Britain after years of nonviolent negotiations. What made one people protest violently and another protest peacefully? Were the American protestors always violent and the Maltese protestors always peaceful? What were the similarities and differences between the two groups as well as the historical and political situations in which they found themselves? There’s something of a story in that.

The old-is-new could also lead the writers in an entirely different direction. Perhaps they can try doing something for the first time which has been accessible to them for as long as they can remember. Examples for me would include going to a professional football game, taking a tango lesson at the dance studio down the block, or walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Maybe writers looking for new ideas can meet with someone whom they know by name but have never had personal company with. In my case, those folks would be the neighbors three doors down who for more than ten years have always exchanged hellos with me but nothing else. Or I could strike a conversation with the man in the newspaper kiosk on the corner of 48th Street and Broadway. Again, the goal is to uncover items of interest that you previously did not know, things that prove a common bond with, or a deep divergence from, your subject.

There are countless other examples of old-is-new. If it inspires writing by finding connections between yourself and the world in which you interact, or even between two contrasting facets of yourself, like your placid and aggressive sides, you’ll be on to something special as you write your essay.

Friday, December 12, 2008

“How to Write Fast” Webcast Now Online

My webcast, How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday, is now available for viewing free of charge at the American Management Association’s (AMA) website ( It discusses problems that prevent writing efficiency and provides tips on making writing less painful and more proactive.

This is my second webcast at AMA. The first, How to Write a Darn Good E-mail, can be seen here:

Both of these hour-long programs have been viewed by thousands of corporate employees across the country. They're definitely worth a peek.

Friday, December 05, 2008

New ESL Course Designed for AMA

Be on the lookout for the American Management Association’s (AMA) new course, Business Writing for the Nonnative English Speaker. I designed this three-day program for AMA, an international training organization, relying on my years of experience in delivering my own English-as-a-Second-Language instruction for engineering, scientific, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and financial firms. The course provides model documents, a broad range of writing topics, plenty of intensive writing practice opportunities, and ample tome to receive individual feedback. I will lead the first two sessions, in San Francisco, January 12-14, and New York, February 2-4. You may register for this course directly at the AMA website. Here’s the link:

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Comic Language Genius of Victor Borge

I can’t help it: I still laugh whenever I hear Victor Borge’s comedic monologues, phonetic punctuation ( and inflationary language ( How did this guy think up this stuff! Borge (1909-2000), was a brilliantly accomplished Danish classical pianist who dedicated his career to clean, uproarious humor. If you need more than a laugh, check out these monologues. If the links don't work, search "phonetic punctuation" and "inflationary language."

Friday, November 21, 2008

And the Answer Is … Whatever You Say, Boss!

“If I don’t I tell you how to decorate your house, then don’t tell me how to decorate mine!” That statement is appropriate when considering certain “rules” of writing style. A lot of those rules are determined entirely by the writer’s preference, not some grammatical law written in stone. In the corporate world, this preference is often referred to as “house style.” Here are four examples.

1. The serial comma. Although I use the use the comma before and in a series (the first example), it is optional.

I have worked for federal, state, and city agencies.
I have worked for federal, state and city agencies.

2. The superfluous that. Either of the examples below is acceptable, as both are clear. If you were running out of space, I suppose the second would be preferable.

The president said that she would make a good leader.
The president said she would make a good leader.

3. Expressing numbers both ways. As much as this practice bothers me, why argue this minor issue if it’s the house rule? There are many more points worth the fight than this one. I prefer the first example below, but not all of my clients do.

The copper tubing has 12-millimeter holes at 2-meter intervals.
The copper tubing has 12 (twelve)-millimeter holes at 2 (two)-meter intervals.

4. Punctuating a salutation. The standard remains the colon; however, some companies use the comma and others nothing at all. You can find examples of all three below in different organizations.

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:
Dear Mr. Rodriguez,
Dear Mr. Rodriguez

The main thing to remember about house style is this: Give the bosses whatever they ask for since these are such minor matters. Save your debates for the bigger issues, such as directness of style, completeness of content, and organization of ideas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Go Grammar Now!

Here’s a terrific resource for basic and intermediate users of English: The website makes for an excellent gateway to other resources on writing style, research papers, grammar and usage, proofreading, English as a Second Language, and a host of other helpful references. Don’t be put off by the kindergartenish look of the website; if you explore it, you’re bound to learn something!

Friday, November 07, 2008

100 Best First Sentences from Novels

I conclude my obsessive listmania series with a favorite: The American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels (

The first, predictably, is from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: Call me Ishmael. My all-time favorite, from Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, did not make the list: They're out there.

Among my all-time bests from the list are these:

  • #8: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984
  • #10: I am an invisible man. – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • #12: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. – Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • #15: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy
  • #16: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • #28: Mother died today. Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert
  • #31: I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael R. Katz
  • #48: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • #94: In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  • #100: The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

Reading those sentences makes me want to reread those books! Remember: Read to write, when you can’t write read, and read like a writer!

Friday, October 31, 2008

100+ Great Books

The Great Books ( began when in 1972 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book carefully listed three essentials for a book to rate as a great one: contemporary significance, timeless relevance, and enduring value. Their list includes far more than a hundred books, beginning with antiquity with Homer, continuing through two millennia with many of the books found in Loeb Classical Library of Harvard University Press (, and ending near the year of publication with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Friday, October 24, 2008

100 Novels

In my view, reading fiction is indispensable to writing improvement. Through sentence analysis of fiction, readers learn firsthand how writers use suspensive techniques to capture the imagination, and how they depart from rigid linguistic rules to maintain reader engagement. Random House/Modern Library has accompanied its Best 100 Nonfiction Books of the Century list, which I noted in the previous post, with a 100 Best Novels of the Century (

As the publisher did with the nonfiction list, it added a Top 100 from its readers. A quick glance of each list shows a huge discrepancy: Not one book from the top ten on either list appeared on the other. Four of Ayn Rand’s books are high on the readers’ list (Atlas Shrugged #1, The Fountainhead #2, Anthem #7, and We the Living #8), as do three by L. Ron Hubbard (Battlefield Earth #3, Mission Earth #9, and Fear #10), but none from either author shows up anywhere on the Board’s Top 100. More surprises crop up; oh, well, you’ll now have more than a hundred books to read.

Time Magazine also published a list of All-Time 100 Novels ( featuring original reviews of many of the books. This list does not rank the titles in any particular order.

Another list, 100 Best Novels ( claims to be “voted by regular people.” Orwell’s 1984, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice populate the top 5.

All the lists constitute a great way to create a lifelong reading regimen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

100 Nonfiction Books

If nonfiction is your thing, Random House, publisher of the Modern Library classics, has developed The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century ( Actually, Random House created two lists, one by a distinguished panel of scholars and authors, and the other by Random House regular participating readers. Both lists are excellent and have significant differences, so they are worth reviewing. You can’t go wrong with either list if you’re looking for a comprehensive survey of nonfiction from the Western perspective.

The National Review created a list of its own, The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century, ( in response to the Random House lists. This list is annotated by Board members who selected the titles.

If your heart belongs to the American West, check out The San Francisco Chronicle's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century Written in English about--or by an author from--the Western United States ( The list includes authors whose reputations extend far beyond the region they cover: Wallace Stegner (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire), John Muir (My First Summer in the Sierra), Ursula K. LeGuin (Dancing at the Edge of the World), Shelby Steele (The Content of Our Character), Barbara Kingsolver (High Tide in Tucson), and Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior).

Friday, October 10, 2008

100 Influential Book Lists

The British poet and essayist Martin Seymour-Smith has been subjected to much criticism for his The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written for several reasons, not the least of which are his awfully awkward and stuffy prose, his smugly provincial and excessively hypercritical posturing, especially when spewing inflammatory rhetoric against Christianity, and his exclusion of many worthy books from his historical list. But no list will ever be perfect, and at least the books Seymour-Smith chooses are indeed influential. His book could be consulted for, if anything, the book list itself. It dates from the beginning of literacy with books such as The I Ching, Old Testament, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Upanishads, all books from diverse cultures, to twentieth-century classics like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He lists books from disciplines as wide-ranging as philosophy (Descartes’s Discourse on Method and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit), logic (Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations), linguistics (Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures), feminism (de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), politics (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung), religion (The Koran), history (Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Herodotus’s History), psychology (Jung’s Psychological Types), sociology (Pareto’s The Mind and Society), economics (Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money), science (Einstein’s Relativity), and mathematics (Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Appearing on the list are the full sweep of literature: poetry (Virgil’s Aeneid), fiction (Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Orwell’s 1984), drama (Shakespeare’s plays), commentary (Paine’s Common Sense), and autobiography (Augustine’s Confessions). You can easily search the table of contents for this book on Amazon.

If a more contemporary list would suit you, try the Boston Public Library’s 100 Most Influential Books of the Century Booklists for Adults ( This list covers twentieth-century titles, many of them from the United States. Books include American fiction (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Wright’s Native Son, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Heller’s Catch 22, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain) and nonfiction (Dewey’s The School and the Child, Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Carson’s Silent Spring, Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, and Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe). Books from outside the US are also plentiful on this list (e.g., Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Joyce’s Ulysses, Buber’s I and Thou, Kafka’s The Trial, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Camus’s The Stranger, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music.

If you wish to narrow your reading scope further, there’s The Hundred Most Influential Books since the War by The Times Literary Supplement ( This list is divided by decade, from the 1940s through post-1970s. Some commonly cited must-reads are Karl Jaspers’s The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism, all from the 1940s; Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society from the 1950s; Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom from the 1960s; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago from the 1970s; and Vaclav Havel’s Living in Truth, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature from the 1980s and beyond. Albert Camus appears on the list three times (The Myth of Sisyphus, The Outsider, and Notebooks 1935-1951), and George Orwell (Animal Farm and 1984), Primo Levi (If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (A World on the Wane and The Savage Mind) show up twice.

All of this is to say, there’s plenty more where these books come from. I can understand the question, "Where do I start?" but never "What's to read?" get started with any of them. Happy reading!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Reading to Write and Listmania

A common refrain in my writing seminars is this: “Read. Reading good writing precedes writing well. Good writers are good readers.”

I recommend the usual standards of quality journalistic writing, such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, and The Nation, or The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and National Review, depending on your political leanings. I direct people to the usual best-seller lists, encouraging nonfiction as well as fiction reading, especially these days, when fact is stranger than fiction. I urge them to read whatever they like, whether it’s politics, education, history, culture, business, the performing or visual arts, sports, home design, culinary arts, travel, or whatever, since this approach will inspire longer and deeper reading spells. Most importantly, they need to learn how to read like writers, aiming to capture not just the author’s content but the author’s style, studying how one might vary sentence length and beginnings, how key ideas sometimes start a paragraph to arrest attention and other times do not appear until the very end to create suspense.

A sure way to keep a steady reading regimen well beyond your retirement years, regardless of your age, is to seize a well-considered list of must-read books and pick off one volume at a time until you’re ready for the next in a series of never-ending lists. Popular reading lists will be my topic for the next several posts on this blog.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Using Your Smarts

As many industry titans like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and AIG have either bitten the dust or been forced into shotgun weddings with other firms, the judgment of CEOs has come under the scrutiny of investors, financial news analysts, think tanks, and business management schools. How timely, then, is Smarts: Are We Hard Wired for Success? authored by Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, and Richard Guare. As noted in the “Top Shelf “column in the Summer 2007 issue of the American Management Association’s journal MWorld, the book reflects on 12 indispensable skills that define executives. Of those, 3 have become common refrains in my writing classes more than ever: self-restraint, task initiation, and observation.

In writing, a lack of self-restraint leads to all sorts of tone problems, especially in the gun-slinging, high-flying world of e-mail and text messaging. Being too hotheaded about someone or something can cause long lasting problems. Remember the Sonny Corleone character in The Godfather? His gut-response expression of interest in a deal with drug lord Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo not only embarrassed his father and the Family, but ultimately led to a five-family war and to his own death.

As for task initiation, think about a time that you might have sat on something far too long, your self-restraint going to the extreme point of paralysis. That thank-you note you wrote but did not send would have kept you in the client’s memory long enough for him to invite you in the door one more time. Or that proposal you didn’t muster the courage to write to your boss eventually landed on her desk anyway, but it was penned by a teammate who was rewarded with a promotion. An over-the-top example of waiting too long pops up in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, when the fickle Estella and ambitious Pip squander their youth on glamorous yet shallow and separate lives without the enduring love they could have given each other.

Observation: What hasn’t been said about this talent? Being able to step outside oneself and at first look at the situation for what it is and not for what you think it should be is so important to actually changing it when it’s bad and to maintaining it when it’s good. Have you read troubleshooting reports that missed key details of transpired events or policy directives that in true dictatorial fashion do not give the rationale for the procedural change? Before calling these omissions a sign of indifference or arrogance, be sure the writer has not simply forgotten or never learned to include those points. I recall the episode “To Serve Man” from the 1960s TV sci-fi hit The Outer Limits. The Kanamits were aliens arriving on Earth “to serve man”; little did we delighted humans know that the Kanamits left out one important detail: They did not want to be our servants but to serve us on a plate as their supper. So much for our power of observation!

Our self-restraint, initiative, and observation indeed go a long way toward keeping us at the top of our writing game. Smarts would make for a quick and easy read as we relate the 12 cited executive skills to our developmental needs as writers.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teach Them and Keep Them

“The Key to Retaining Top Talent” by Gail Finger (MWorld, Spring 2008) discusses ways of engaging employees to keep them focused on the organization and on the lookout for innovation. Finger argues for launching appropriate training and coaching, especially in times of radical change—and when isn’t there change in any business endeavor? As she explains, “During times of change and stress, it’s natural for people to revert back to the old, comfortable way of doing things. Training topics quickly get lost in the pressures of day-to-day work.”

For this reason, among others, I have noticed that many of my clients are calling for shorter, more specific writing programs tailored to specific topics, such as accident investigations, audit reports, grant proposals, lab analyses, executive summaries, and writing quickly. Rather than scratch the idea of cultivating talent, the best training managers continually seek ways of nurturing those who show the greatest potential and commitment.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

From the Education Minded to the Business Minded

I first heard about psychologist Howard Gardner when his highly theoretical Frames of Minds (1983) proclaimed his theory of multiple intelligences (MI), which became the mantra for schoolteachers interested in challenging the whole child and respecting different forms of intelligence. Gardner explained that humans have seven intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, ad intrapersonal), and in 1999 her added an eighth, naturalistic, to account for those highly skilled in environmental concerns.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Gardner's Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2007), adapts MI theory for a broader audience, extending beyond the classroom to the office, board room, laboratory--virtually anywhere. The Fall 2007 issue of MWorld captures the sound bites from the author himself on those five minds: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. All five contribute to the achievement of a successful thinker.

Friday, September 05, 2008

MWORLD in My World

The American Management Association’s MWorld is an excellent publication for businesspeople looking for practical ideas when planning key initiatives or making strategic moves. The quarterly journal has great feature articles on industry leaders, such as Douglas R. Conant, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company (Fall 2007); Fred Hassan, Chairman and CEO of Schering-Plough (Winter 2007-2008); Tom Finn, President of Procter & Gamble’s Global Health Care Division (Spring 2008); and Edward J. Ludwig, President and CEO of Becton, Dickinson and Company (Summer 2008). Experts on industry trends also make brief but salient appearances. Recent stories have included mind guru Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind and Fives Minds for the Future; Erich Joachimsthaler, whose Hidden in Plain Sight has bolstered his reputation as a go-to guy on seismic opportunities for corporations; Donald L. Kirkpatrick and James D. Kirkpatrick, authors of Implementing the Four Levels, an important book for corporate training managers looking to determine value in their course offerings; and Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, and Richard Guare, whose book Smarts explores the skills vital for executives to thrive today.

Florence M. Stone, Editor of MWorld, one of the best in the publishing industry, is a master of summarizing. In the brief space allotted (the publication usually runs 48 pages), she manages to pack a great deal of useful information from diverse sources, and she succeeds in keeping the stories fresh and concise in a familiar, readable format.

I’ll be dedicating the September postings of this blog to some hot topics gleaned from MWorld.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Difference between a Phrase and a Clause

One of my writing students recently asked about the difference between a phrase and a clause. Here is a working definition of each with examples:

In a phrase, one will not find both a noun and a verb.

In the above sentence, in a phrase is a phrase because it lacks a verb and cannot stand alone as a sentence.

As this is a dependent clause, this is an independent clause.

In the above sentence, as this is a dependent clause is a clause because it contains a noun (this or dependent clause) and a verb (is); additionally, it is a dependent clause because it cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, just like a phrase cannot stand alone.

In the same sentence, this is an independent clause is also a clause, but it is an independent clause because it can stand alone as a sentence.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Down Under Lingo, Part 3

Toward the conclusion of my Australian trip, I had a spirited conversation with an Australian physician in a Sydney hospital. The tenor of our chat changed quickly when the doctor learned that I was a writing consultant. After bemoaning the quality of English writing everywhere wherever he travels in the world, Dr. Burke turned his attention to the American accent. “Americans just can’t get the proper pronunciation of commonplace words,” he said irritably. “They say Bris-bane instead of Bris-bin and Austral-i-a instead of Austral-ya. I mean, they should listen to how it’s said!” From that point onward, I put on my best Aussie affectation. I even said isle for ale and ca for car. I think I impressed him with my "perfect" pronunciation!

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

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Down Under Lingo, Part 2

The conversation below is close to the one I had with a bartender in Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia, near the Great Barrier Reef:

Bartender: G’day. [Hello]
Me: Hi. Do you have Bailey’s?
Bartender: Out of it, mate. [friend] Try the bottle shop (liquor store) down the street.
Me: The what?
Bartender: Bottle shop. They’ve got it.
Me: Never mind. What’s your most bitter beer?
Bartender: VB. [Victoria Bitter]
Me: Huh? OK, may I have that?
Bartender: Schooner? [a large glass]
Me: No, a VB.
Bartender: (Pours a large glass.) No worry, mate.
Me: By the way, where’s the rest room?
Bartender: Say again?
Me: The toilet.
Bartender: (Points.) The dunny [toilet] is over there.
Me: The what?
Bartender: The dunny [toilet].
Me: Oh. I thought you call it the loo.
Bartender: The Oz [Australian] vocabulary is rich enough to have more than one word for it.
Me: I guess. The weather is great here, considering it’s winter.
Bartender: Come in summer. You’ll see heaps of mozzies [mosquitoes] the size of your fist.
Me: Huh? (Taking the beer and leaving a tip.)
Bartender: You’re a good bloke. [man]

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

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Down Under Lingo, Part 1

I’m writing this and the next two posts from Australia, one for each week I’m here. Since this blog is about how we use language, I may as well write about my observations of Aussie Speak.

My impression of Australians now that I’ve walked the streets of both Sydney and Melbourne is no different from the impression I’ve gotten of them throughout my previous world travels. They’re a lot like Americans. They’re as friendly toward us as we are toward them. They eat burgers and pizza like we do, and live on take-out food. They’re beginning to struggle with the same obesity problems as Americans. They share a common history in warfare over the past century: World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Iraqi War. They have a shameful past, as we do; their treatment of Aboriginals roughly equates to our treatment of Native Americans. They’re big fans of American cinema—and extremely proud of their contributions to it (e.g., Peter Weir, Russell Crowe, and Cate Blanchett). They’re put off by snobs, as are most Americans. True, the average Sydney citizen is a lot more laid back than the New Yorker, but they love sports, albeit different ones (cricket and rugby). Their attitude toward vacation has got ours beat—they do take off more time. While they do have their own slang, I would not go so far as saying that they more resemble the English than the Americans. Playwright George Bernard Shaw is credited with proclaiming, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language,” but I definitely do not get that feeling here in Australia. So while our languages are a bit different, our attitudes are basically the same.

Nevertheless, an American might still emerge puzzled from a conversation with an Aussie. Here’s one I had with a hotel clerk while checking into my room:

Clerk: You’re American, eh?
Me: Yeah.
Clerk: See any roos [kangaroos] since you’ve been Down Under? [Australia]
Me: Excuse me?
Clerk: You’re not likely to see them as much as you’d like in Oz [Australia] unless you’re in the outback [back country]. Me oldies [parents] live there. Those roos come on their property all the time. Once one came running up on me so suddenly, I didn’t make it to the loo. [toilet]
Me: So is this your full-time job?
Clerk: For now. Beats being a dole-bludger [a career welfare recipient]
Me: So you like it?
Clerk: For now. But in a few weeks, I’ll be starting uni. [the university]
Me: May I have the keys to my room? I need to use the roo.
Clerk: (laughs) That’s loo, mate.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Snap Out of It: Text-Message Style Doesn’t Cut It!

Attention recent college graduates: You’re no longer in the dorm.

When speaking of e-mail style, this is my mantra: “I’d rather you call me a stuffed shirt than rude or silly.” So when writing thank-you messages—or any business message—whether they be in the form of a letter, e-mail, or text message, use the conventions of Standard English.

I was glad to see a Wall Street Journal article agree with me (July 29, 2008, D1). Satirically titled “Thx for the IView!” Reporter Sarah E. Needleman describes several examples from the corporate world when job candidates lost employment opportunities or at least their credibility because they wrote with an inappropriately informal style. Here are just two of several lessons learned from the article:
  1. Don’t message the interviewer’s mobile phone unless he or she has given you permission to do so.
  2. Use only the best style and language you can muster in any correspondence with the interviewer.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Begin with the Most Important Point

The tip “begin with the most important point” from my book The Art of E-Mail Writing has been useful for many of my clients. Suppose you wrote in first draft the following sentence:

If we do not have an extra laptop and when the three rush jobs come into the office simultaneously while we are revising the employee handbook for the company-wide orientation program, which is an executive priority, then, because we will not have sufficient equipment even though we have the needed staff, we may not meet the client deadlines.

Phew! I’m still hyperventilating from reading that one! Even if this 58-word sentence finally makes sense to you, it will have lost all its impact by the time you figure it out. Where is the most important point? At the end—so start there!

We may not meet client deadlines without an extra laptop, even though we have the needed staff. Our office cannot process the three rush jobs on time while meeting the executive priority of revising the employee handbook for the company-wide orientation program.

Notice the decreased word count, now 42 words, and the more powerful word usage—all because you’ve begun with the most important point!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Keep the Subject and Verb Closely Connected

When the subject and verb of your sentence are far apart, you’ll surely cause your reader’s head to spin in a sea of confusion. In the examples below, observe the word count in each sample is identical (34 words), yet the second draft is far clearer. That’s because the subject and verb (italicized) are closely connected.

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

Friday, July 11, 2008

In Politics, What’s the Point in Getting to the Point?

Here’s a quote from the you’ve-got-to-laugh-at-this-one files. Before Senator Hillary Clinton suspended her presidential campaign, this is how she responded to a question about challenging the seating of maverick delegates from Michigan and Florida in the Democratic primary: “Well, we are going to look at that and make a determination at some point. But I haven’t made any decision at this time” (New York Times, June 2, 2008, page A1).

A more concise statement would have been “We will decide, but not now.”—from 24 words to 6 words. But such is the stuff of politics.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 7

Joseph M. Williams begins his last of ten lessons in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace with a clever German proverb: Loquacity and lying are cousins.

The examples he uses in this lesson, which focuses on the ethical obligations of the writer, are both instructive and compelling. For instance, in a dispute, should we report by blaming the conflict on the bickering parties or on the historical circumstances in which they find themselves? Is intentional obfuscation ever the right thing to do? Williams explores these and other questions with a clarity and grace of his own.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 6

I’ve discussed noun chains in a previous posting ( Noun chains (i.e., a succession of nouns in a sentence) cause reading challenges and require careful editing. Here’s an example:

This is the quality assurance department intervention project focus group completion report.

A nine-word noun chain—that’s a record! Such phrases may have some vaguely abstract meaning to the person who wrote it, but it is utterly ambiguous to anyone trying to understand it.

Joseph M. Williams walks his readers through a useful case study on page 91 of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, urging rewrites of such phrases by reversing their order. His advice would work in this case. Let’s start with the quality assurance group and then work backwards: focus group, then pull completion report, and finally intervention project, with a couple extra words for clarity. In this case the 14-word second draft is an improvement over the more concise but much foggier 12-word first draft:

The quality assurance department’s focus group presents this completion report on the intervention project.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 5

Here’s a commonly asked question about writing at work: Should I use I or we when writing in formal contexts such as academic papers, technical reports, scientific abstracts, or legal briefs? If you’d ask those who have been browbeaten by their bosses into avoiding personal pronouns, they’d have you believe that this concern is a matter of company policy or law.

It is not. Using personal pronouns is an issue of preference, plain and simple. Those who would argue to the contrary would have to explain why they use the just-as-personal pronouns you and they, as in the following sentences typical of scientific and technical writing:

  • Click on the link below to log in. (The you is understood here.)
  • Clients may call the help desk whenever they have questions.

Using personal pronouns is a sure way of assigning responsibility for actions and achieving clarity. On page 88 of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams notes, “The first person I and we appear in much scholarly prose. … When you are referring to some act of your own writing or thinking, the first person is entirely appropriate.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Powerful Points from “Style”, Part 4

Passive voice is such a contentious writing issue among higher-level managers in the organizations where I deliver training workshops. Using the passive voice is not an issue of right or wrong but of style—how a writer wants to come across to the readers. So we have a choice:

Passive: Nine anonymous letters were mailed to me.
Active: I received nine anonymous letters.

Passive: Veronica was promoted.
Active: Management promoted Veronica.

Passive: The cause of the problem is unknown.
Active: The investigators do not know the cause of the problem.

Here’s what Joseph M. Williams has to say on the topic on page 80 in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace:
Choose the passive voice when you don’t know who did it, your readers don’t care who did it, or you don’t want them to know who did it.

Well said. The choice is yours, but remember—active voice is generally more powerful, clear, and concise.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Powerful Points from “Style”, Part 3

The nonsexist general pronoun he or she causes all kinds of awkward problems. Joseph M. Williams agrees in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. On page 35, he writes:

If we reject he as a generic pronoun because it is sexist and they because careful readers consider it ungrammatical, we are left with either a clumsily intrusive he or she, a substantially worse he/she, or the worst s/he.

Obviously, the grammar gods who decided that he or she would work as a rule flinched when they realized that the following sentence would be considered grammatically correct:

Any employee who does not have his or her handbook should ask his or her manager to get one for him or her because he or she will find answers to most questions about responsibilities and benefits he or she may have.

We can eliminate this problem by not using the general pronoun, choosing plurals, and finding ways around using any pronoun altogether:

Employees who do not have the handbook should ask their manager to get one because it answers most questions responsibilities and benefits.

Besides eliminating the awkwardness of the original, the second draft reduces the word count from 41 to 21.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 2

In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, sixth edition (New York: Longman, 2000), author Joseph M. Williams makes a good case for the foolhardiness of slavishly abiding by every grammar rule. Many grammar rules are beloved and cited endlessly by self-proclaimed grammar experts who themselves have limited writing experience. Williams divides many of these rules into two categories: folklore and options.

Which rules fall under folklore? Beginning a sentence with but, and, or because and fretting over the difference between that and which. And what are the optional rules? Splitting an infinite, shall vs. will, and who vs. whom.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to know the rules before breaking them, but Williams’s points are reasonable enough. After all, rarely would any of these issues have an effect on meaning.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 1

Serious writing students of the business, academic, or professional ilk should read Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, sixth edition, by Joseph M. Williams (New York: Longman, 2000). Williams renders far more than ten lessons in his cogent essays on fluent, clear, and purposeful writing. One of my favorites is this:

(The) First Principle of Writing: We write well when we would willingly experience what our readers do when they read what we’ve written. That puts a burden on us as writers to imagine ourselves as readers.

I could not agree more. I frequently see people criticize their coworkers’ writing and then commit errors even more grievous. Williams’s observation is one of many excellent ones in his book, so I will touch upon a few more in the next six posts.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Philip Vassallo in

My writing consulting practice was recently featured in an article on, a business website focusing on a hole host of communication issues. In a 1,300-word article, “Philip Vassallo Teaches Corporate Communicators How to Have the Write Stuff,” writer Kelly Kass accurately depicts some of the major issues that arise in my practice and underscore my books The Art of On-the-Job Writing and The Art of E-mail Writing:
• Dealing with writer’s block
• Understanding the role of audience in writing at work
• Distinguishing between revising and editing, and which to do first
• Focusing on the 4S Plan in writing: statement, support, structure, and style
• Writing collaboratively and for the boss’s signature
• Committing to continuous improvement in writing
• Managing e-mail effectively

Here’s the link:

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Style vs. Substance: A Thought

“When is style over substance acceptable in business writing?” asked Olasupo Adewolu, an engineer from New York City Transit, in one of my Executive Communication classes. What an excellent question, especially since when saying we like someone’s writing we're actually talking about style.

The answer to Mr. Adewolu’s question: Never. The point of business writing is substance—so if style gets in the way of substance, you’re distracting the reader. Here is an example:

It is a propitious moment in our organizational history for our reasonable committee members to contemplate a decision whether or not we should renew our contract with our current software vendor.

This 31-word sentence is laden with stylistic pitfalls. Consider what the writer really wants: a decision by the committee. With that purpose in mind, he should get to the point. Here are at least six of his stylistic problems:

1. The writer does not actually say the word decision until Word 18.

2. The nature of the decision, renew our contract, does not appear until Words 24-26.

3. The word propitious is overdone, especially when it places more focus on the moment in history than the desired action.

4. The phrase in our organizational history is a complete waste—even if timing were of the essence. This decision is not a historical lesson; it is a routine business practice.

5. The adjective reasonable clearly kowtows to the committee members—it’s almost laughable.

6. The phrase whether or not is most often a redundancy. Even current is a wasted word because the committee would not be renewing a contract with any other vender.

The writer draws more attention to himself than to his point through an overwrought vocabulary, an obsequious attitude, redundant expressions, and, most important, a delayed request. He could have achieved his point in half the words:

Our committee must decide now about whether to renew the contract with our software vendor.

This 15-word sentence gets to the point with blazing clarity. A multi-million, multi-year contract is at stake, so make your case plainly. The substance should dictate the style, not the other way around.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sound or Silence? Whatever It Takes!

Many people demand absolute silence when writing, but not Edmund White, writer of some twenty books and professor at Princeton University. In his essay “Before a Rendezvous with the Muse, First Select the Music,” he writes, “I’ve never willingly written a word without listening to music of some sort.”

White’s novel observations about the influence of music on the writing process appears as the final essay entry in Writers on Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times. Here’s a remarkable excerpt from his commentary:

More often than not I experience music as a landscape unscrolling just outside the window whenever I look up, or as a human drama unfolding across the courtyard when I peek out, or as a separate but beloved presence, an intimate friend sitting in a matching chair, thinking and feeling. Music for me is a companion during the lonely (and why not admit it? the boring) hours of writing.

I’ve heard one writing “expert” after another foolishly claim without a shred of evidence that writers should listen only to music that approximates the rate of a beating human heartbeat, or that only music without lyrics would be helpful during the composing process, or that silence is an absolute necessity to maintain concentration.

All nonsense. I’ve seen people write efficiently while listening to rap on their iPods. I’ve watched others write quickly to pop love songs or dramatic operatic arias. And, no doubt, I’ve known others to require quiet when composing. Some rise early to write while the rest of the world is asleep for this very reason.

Then what works. There is no one-fits-all answer to this question. Whatever it takes for you—music, jackhammers, barking dogs, silence, whatever. Experiment to see what best works for you.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Turn Those Questions into Statements

The next time you create a bulleted or numbered list of questions, consider whether turning those questions into statements improve the purposefulness, clarity, and conciseness.

In the first draft below, the writer poses a list of questions; in the second draft, the writer opts for statements, reducing the word count by 35 percent.

Draft 1 (32 words)

The project committee should answer three questions:
• Is the project aligned with our mission?
• What will the project cost?
• Do we have a sufficient workforce to complete the project?

Draft 2 (21 words)

The project committee should address three issues:
• project alignment with our mission
• project cost
• workforce for project completion

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

New AMA Course: How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday

I am having a great time designing the course How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday for the American Management Association (AMA). This one-day course focuses on creative techniques to break through writer’s block in the face of multiple writing projects for diverse audiences under tight deadlines. It will launch on October 24 in New York, followed by classes on November 14 in San Francisco and December 19 in Chicago.

To read more about the course, visit the AMA site by clicking here:

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Go CUNY! A Useful Writer’s Website

The City University of New York (CUNY) offers a helpful website for student and business writers( The Grammar and Style link is especially useful for developing writers looking for definitions and explanations of common grammatical errors. Check it out!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Start from the Middle!

Question: Why do so many writers at work often say, “I have a hard time getting started, but once I get going, I’m OK”?

Answer: Because the hardest part is setting the tone in the beginning of the document. That opening establishes how you will come across to your reader: deferential or arrogant, formal or informal, technical or general—not always an easy choice to make and even harder to render.

Then just skip the opening and start your draft with the second paragraph, which is the stuff of your job. You’ll likely have no trouble in that area if you know what you’re reporting about or proposing. Once you get on a roll, you can always see how your message closes, which usually will give you an insight into how you should begin.

Trying this technique has solved writer’s block for many participants in my writing workshops—so it’s worth a try the next time you’re just sitting there pulling the hairs out of your head. Get those fingers moving!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Staff Is or Staff Are?

Welcome to the 200th posting on this blog! Since the first was on January 4, 2005, I should thank all of you who continue tuning in 39 months later.

Here’s a question from Angel L. Román, Deputy Director, Out-of-School Youth Initiatives, of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development:

What’s preferred: “staff is” or “staff are”?

Angel is certainly not the first to ask that question, but I’m glad he did when I was in the middle of updating this blog. Here’s my answer, which may upset the grammar police: Staff can be used in a singular or a plural sense.

No doubt, staff is a collective noun and therefore singular, just like board of directors, committee, company, department, family, jury, organization, and team. For example:

My staff is the best in the business.
The bank’s staff works best under pressure.

However, we can use staff in a plural context as well, when staff members are implied. Cases in point:

Please give this data to the staff who are writing the report.
If you give this project to my staff, they would know how to manage it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Take a Hike

Novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth) once said in an interview published in Writers at Work: The Paris Interviews, “My springboard (to writing) has always been long walks.” (103)

I find that the same thing works when I’m stuck on a writing task. Staring at a blank screen or aimlessly netsurfing won’t get me any closer to completion; however, cleaning out my head with a spirited walk has done the trick in getting me back on the job. As a bonus, I’ve made discoveries along my walking path that might show up in my next piece: a toddler enjoying the sensation of walking backwards, a weary postal worker climbing the few steps of her two hundredth house that morning, or the first spotting of spring of a cardinal in flight.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Counting the Words

Want to measure your writing progress? Count the words! Ernest Hemingway revealed he did just that in an interview with George Plimpton for The Art of Fiction: The Paris Review Interviews, Number 21. Of Hemingway, Plimpton writes:

He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself””—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, to 512, the higher figures on the days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream. (63)

I remember political commentator William Buckley saying that all writers need are a mere 150 words a day—42 words fewer than this posting—to have an in-depth article in a week, a hefty short story in a month, and a novel in a year.

Counting the words seems like a good way to keep encouraged about keeping your progress in perspective. If it works for you, then do it!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Wooing Your Readers

Do you write proposals for upper management’s approval? Are you aspiring to a leadership position or already in one? Can you see sound courses of action ahead that need loads of buy-in from all levels of your organization or community? Is your future success based on influencing others over whom your power is limited?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you will find profitable reading material in The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa (Portfolio Books, 2007). The authors systematically take their readers on a constructive process aimed toward persuasion without manipulation. Among their practical tips:
• Summarize the idea in a five-minute pitch.
• Confront barriers in your credibility with your audience.
• Map the decision making process, including all key players along the way to the ultimate decision makers.
• Confirm your own passion for the long haul and value small victories.
• Respect your audience’s beliefs.
• Personalize your pitch.

The book has much more to offer than these points. I found especially refreshing the authors’ admonishment that would-be wooers leave relationships better than they were before the wooing began. It doesn’t hurt that the case studies they use are highly entertaining, particularly the one of celebrated rock star Bono’s unlikely success in wooing archconservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to support African debt relief and funding for AIDS programs for Africa. This book is a must-read for persuasive writers.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Uses of Philosophy in Writing

Readers of British Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) are bound to discover ideas applicable to any intellectual discipline. Take “The Value of Philosophy,” his famous last essay in The Problems of Philosophy (1912). In making a brilliant point about why we should live philosophical lives, Russell also alludes to the challenges of writers:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. … Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. (156-157)

If everything were certain, why would businesspeople bother to write persuasive proposals? Why would politicians fuss over crafting compelling position papers? Why would novelists labor over emotionally powerful moments in their stories? Russell is on target in asserting that the reflection emerging from doubt, not the ignorance bred by certainty, inspires a deep thinking that eschews intellectual shortcuts and prizes a comprehensive, honest approach to logical analysis. Want to keep it fresh? Take in some philosophy.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

This Culture Thing

I mentioned in my September 29, 2007, entry on this blog that I had spent a good part of the year reading about creativity. That trend has continued into this year. In the coming installments of WORDS ON THE LINE, I will share some thoughts that have struck me as useful to writers looking for heightened inspiration, enhanced quality, or improved productivity.

This week, culture has been on my mind. The idea of culture—whatever that means—frequently surfaces in my writing seminars in the form of statements such as, “I’m new to the company and have to learn the corporate culture.”

Throwing around the word culture without defining it could be dangerous business. Much of what we believe to be true—our behaviors and attitudes—are culturally bound. Even our concepts of space and time grow from our culture, and we express ourselves not by language alone but by visual signs: postures, apparel, inanimate images, music, and video representations among them. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall writes a lot about this idea in The Silent Language (1959) The Hidden Dimension (1969) Beyond Culture (1976), and The Dance of Life (1983). Reading any of these books would get the concerned reader up to speed on the complications of culture. For instance, in The Silent Language, Hall explores what he calls the vocabulary of culture, including our primary message systems, the first being interaction. He notes:

Interaction lies at the hub of the universe of culture and everything grows from it (38).

Since speech and writing play vital roles in interaction, Hall’s theories should make for interesting reading to writers concerned with how their ideas are subjected to misinterpretation depending on what readers bring to the reading.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Notes on Writing Style from George Orwell

Most people know George Orwell because they had to read his short novels 1984 and Animal Farm in high school. Orwell was an expert essayist as well, a master of the English language who had quite a bit to say about bad writing.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” he attacks pretentious, ambiguous writing by citing astounding examples of academic gobbledygook, political waffling, and technical jargon. He concludes with six tips:

• Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
• Never use a long word where a short one will do.
• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
• Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
• Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
• Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can read the article by clicking here:

Thanks, Neil Friedland, Coordinator of Writing Services for the School of Visual Arts and colleague, for recommending the article.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Two Wild Writing Tips from Oates

No matter what you’re writing—an autobiographical book, a business proposal, a company newsletter article, an essay for a class, a letter to Mom, whatever—American literary giant Joyce Carol Oates offers for your consideration two seven-word sentences in the preface of The Handbook of Short Story Writing, edited by Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe.

1. There are no rules to help us. Here she is talking about writing short fiction, but you could see this beautiful sentence as a free pass for unlocking your imagination regardless of the writing project. Forget about rules—just write! Rules can come later. Stop asking questions and get to it.

2. Writers write, eventually; but first they feel. This is the penultimate sentence of her essay. (The final one is this: A marvelous life.) Here Oates encourages daydreaming and then transforming that flight of fantasy into a gratifying rush of writing pleasure you’ll find difficult to stop. People who love writing write for that experience.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New AMA Course: How to Write Fast …

I’m excited to be designing a new one-day course for the American Management Association (AMA): How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday. The course will offer practical tips for jumpstarting the writing process, dealing with writing pressure at work, and taking a more proactive stance toward managing writing tasks.

I had a great time designing and delivering How to Write a Darn Good E-Mail, another one-day course for AMA in 2006 because I had a strong support team working with me. After attending today’s storyboard session for How to Write Fast, I am confident about an excellent outcome.

The course will launch on October 24 at the AMA New York City office, and then at its centers in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, so keep your eyes open for it!

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Putting Your "Right" Mind to It

Will the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) surpass the MBA as a more desired higher education degree in the corporate world? Daniel H. Pink thinks so.

Pink, the author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, persuasively argues that technical know-how, the domain of left-brained thinkers, has already had its day. Left-brain thinking brought the technological innovations (laptops, handhelds) we commonly use; however, the amazing progress of automation has created a tremendous worldwide glut of technical skills. As a result, many information technology jobs are being outsourced to countries like India and the Philippines for a fraction of the cost.

In this well-written, fast-paced book, the author claims that more and more corporations are trying to get a step ahead of the competition by seeking right-brainers, creative people who see connections between apparently divergent ideas. In fact, Pink notes that some firms have actually hired poets and artists to breathe a cultural aesthetic into the company.

After introducing his premise, Pink turns to what he calls the six right-brain senses necessary to succeed in today’s business environment: design (sheer beauty—think iPhone), story (narrative powers), symphony (realizing the harmony of diverse elements), empathy (understanding and feeling for others), play (the ability to have fun and laugh at life), and meaning (understanding the greater significance of things). Portfolio sections at the end of each of these chapters provide numerous practical ideas to cultivate your right-brain leanings.

As a writer, I found this book helpful. If you’re often under the gun to write at work, you should enjoy this quick read. A special thanks for recommending the book to Marzena Ermler, Coordinator of Professional Development, Office of Staff Development, the New York Public Library.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Facts Schmacts—What’s the Story?

In her thought-provoking book The Story Factor, author and consultant Annette Simmons drives home what I talk a lot about in my writing seminars when she writes:

"People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them, not the facts themselves. The meaning they add to facts depends on their current story. People stick with their story even when presented with facts that don’t fit. They simply interpret or discount the facts to fit their story. This is why facts are not terribly useful in influencing others."

As I’ve said in this blog before, it’s not the content language that persuades people; it’s the context language—the interpretive information—that makes the facts relevant to them. If you’re thinking, “So much for bullet points, PowerPoint slides, and the like,” you may be overdoing it. After all, if the boss wants bullet points, you’ve got to deliver them. Just remember to set the reader up with a brief introductory statement about why the bullet points are relevant to your readers.

Simmons does a fine job of describing why storytelling is so essential a skill in influencing and persuading audience, and then she systematically lists the types of stories we need to tell and the situations that inspire them. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to be a better persuasive speaker—and with a little imagination, business writers will find how to apply her ideas to their composing process.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

You Can Always Ask Oxford

Just in case and are not enough for you linguaphiles out there, you’ll get plenty to browse at the Oxford online site. Bookmarking is a sure way to get answers to a lot of your language questions. Once there, you can simply use it search engine Oxford English Dictionary to look up that puzzling word. You can also get tips on letter writing, grammar, spelling, and more on the Better Writing tab, and numerous links are available for the clicking on the World of Words tab. Parents of school-age children will find several helpful educational links at AskOxford as well.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Countering Reader Indifference

In Mindmapping: Your Personal Guide to Exploring Creativity and Problem-Solving, author Joyce Wycoff explores the value of mindmapping as a creative tool in many endeavors, especially project management, meeting management, presentation planning, note taking, and writing.

Wycoff explains that since no one wants to read or will remember most business writing, writers of memos, reports, and proposals should develop a sound composing strategy, which includes:
1. determining whether the message should be written at all
2. using headlines (e.g., “Company Benefits,” “Action Plan”) for maximum impact
3. inserting visuals wherever helpful to the reader
4. preferring the short document, the short paragraph, the short sentence, and the short word

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 7: Agreeable Nouns and Pronouns

Making pronouns agree in number with their antecedents is a tricky business. The following sentence has an agreement problem because the word writer is singular and their is plural:

A good writer knows how to punctuate their sentences.

Here are three fixes, from least to most favored:

1. Use his or her to agree with writer:

A good writer knows how to punctuate his or her sentences.

2. Make the noun plural to agree with the plural pronoun:

Good writers know how to punctuate their sentences.

3. Best of all, delete the pronoun in the name of conciseness:

A good writer knows how to punctuate.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 6: Agreeable Subjects and Verbs

The main exception to consistent usage in tense is the third person singular in the present tense. The pronouns he, she, and it, as well as the nouns they represent, get a verb ending in s only in the present tense. Examples:

I write reports, you write proposals, and Bill (or he) writes procedures.

We describe objects, they describe events, and the report (or it) describes the protocol.

I have a car, you have a boat, and Yvette (or she) has a plane.

Notice in the past and future tense how the verb forms are consistent:

I wrote the article, you wrote the chapter, and Jill (or she) wrote the book.

We will read the analysis, they will read the report, and Paul (or he) will read the claim.

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