Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Getting Your Minds Straight

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner articulated his theory of multiple intelligences (MI) in 1983 with his landmark book Frames of Mind, in which he describes seven human intelligences: logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. His intention, in part, was to expand our narrow definition of what it means to be intelligent. He has since added an eighth intelligence, naturalist, to account for our environmental awareness. MI has become a mantra for many American educators over the past three decades, as many elementary and secondary school curricula incorporate diverse means of assessing students' educational development.

With Five Minds for Future, Gardner now seeks to expand our definition of our mindset. He considers these five "minds" interdependent and indispensable to future innovators and leaders:
  1. The Disciplined Mind - Applying thinking based on established scholarly disciplines
  2. The Synthesizing Mind - Choosing vital information from diverse fields in cohesive, comprehensive ways
  3. The Creating Mind - Posing new questions and offering new solutions that build on established disciplines and passes the scrutiny of authoritative entities
  4. The Respectful Mind - Reacting sympathetically and constructively to divergent cultures
  5. The Ethical Mind - Striving toward good world citizenship

The book reads well for those seeking a theory and less so for those seeking practical applications; however, Gardner’s research, especially for the first three minds, is worth reading.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

If Storytelling Is Important to You ...

If you agree with me that people connect with each other--and, therefore, do business with each other--based more on emotional than on empirical grounds, then you'd want to master the art of storytelling. The National Storytelling Network (http://www.storynet.org/) and the International Storytelling Center (http://www.storytellingcenter.net/) exist for such a purpose.

To get started with a book on the subject, read The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling, second edition by Annette Simmons (Basic Books, 2006). If you're new to storytelling, which is an indispensable skill for managers of anyone and salespeople of anything, you'll like the simple theory and examples clearly described in this book by a master storyteller. Simmons identifies six stories to learn and techniques to employ them: Who I Am, Why I Am Here, The Vision, Teaching, Values in Action, and I Know What You Are Thinking. The book makes for entertaining and educational reading.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Another good review came in for my fourth book on writing, How to Write Fast Under Pressure (www.amacombooks.org/book.cfm?isbn=9780814414859). The critic, Mayra Calvani, for BlogCritics.com, writes:

I found the book well structured and the writing straightforward and enjoyable. Vassallo uses clear examples and metaphors to demonstrate his ideas and techniques. It is a quick read, too. If you work in business and have to write fast under deadlines, I prompt you to get a copy of this book. But How to Write Fast isn’t only for business people, and most writers will benefit from this method.

Here's the link: http://blogcritics.org/books/article/reviews-in-brief-how-to-write/

Thursday, December 17, 2009


The Englewood Review of Books published a positive review of my latest book, How to Write Fast Under Pressure. (www.amacombooks.org/book.cfm?isbn=9780814414859). The reviewer, Chris Smith, writes:
Two of the most helpful facets of How to Write Fast Under Pressure were the “Three Big Questions” which Vassallo offers to clarify the direction of a writing project, and the “common energy stoppers” that would interrupt the flow of a writer’s work.

Here's the link: http://erb.kingdomnow.org/brief-review-how-to-write-fast-under-pressure-philip-vassallo-midweek-edition/

Friday, December 11, 2009

Where's the News?

Paul LaRosa has something to say about the likely demise print newspaper. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and virtually every other newspaper give away their content online at no charge, and these days we can read the news in the bathroom by simply pushing a button on our smartphone. Many people are getting “news” from blogs, webcasts, and other online sources, so why drop a buck or two at the newsstand when the news is readily and freely available in the palm of our hand?

What does this mean for our getting news less focused on entertainment and more concerned with the facts? The trend is pointing toward more biased news coverage than ever before. The media rushes to judgment on critical issues (think healthcare or terrorism) and obsesses over irrelevant issues (think the Colorado-boy-not-in-the-helium-balloon case or the endless attention to Michael Jackson's death).

LaRosa should know what he’s talking about. He is a veteran journalist who wrote for the New York Daily News, an author of four crime books, and a TV news producer. For his story, click here: www.paullarosa.com/blog/?p=1077&cpage=1#comment-340

Friday, December 04, 2009

Encouraging Website for Writers

My interview on BookBites (www.blogtalkradio.com/bookbitesforkids) was featured on Zabowska's Blog, an excellent website for developing writers (http://szabowska.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/developing-thick-skin/). The blog offers tips designed to improve writers' attitudes, help them establish a writing routine, kindle their creativity, and spike their productivity.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book Bites Interview Now Online

I had a great time being interviewed by Suzanne Lieurance today for her Book Bites (www.blogtalkradio.com/bookbitesforkids/2009/12/03/book-bites-for-kids-special-editionphilip-vassallo). In the 30-minute talk, Ms. Lieurance asks relevant questions of interest to school-aged as well as workplace writers. I was glad about having the chance to talk about the key aspects of the writing process and confidence game called writing.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Three Primers on Dialogue Theory

I am recommending three books on Dialogue theory because writers can draw many useful conclusions about clear communication by reading them. While they are not specifically about writing, their focus on honest and open interaction without an agenda can inspire writers to fulfill their ethical obligations whether reporting a story or arguing a position. Here they are:

Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs. This is an important book for understanding dialogue theory. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in a book review for ETC: A Review of General Semantics: (The author) reaches into his seemingly endless reserve of rich illustrations from history, popular culture, other cultures, literature, music, philosophy, management, and organized labor to sharpen his readers' focus on the clear distinction between Dialogue and other forms of human communication. … To Isaacs’s credit, he never shies from admitting that attempts at Dialogue can lead to painfully protracted and frustrating impasses. However, he depicts the rewards of communication breakthroughs as virtual miracles. … (Isaacs’s) exhaustive associations between theory and technique render Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together the ultimate handbook on the subject.

The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation by Daniel Yankelovich. Among the highlights of this highly readable volume are sections which form the core a cogent instruction manual for Dialogue: The 15 strategies of successful dialogues, which include tips for gaining and maintaining trust and for clarifying communication barriers, and the 10 potholes of the mind, which identify egocentric, prejudicial, or unfocused behaviors that negatively impact on Dialogue.

Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor, Glenna Gerard. Most valuable are the authors’ strategies for bringing value to Dialogue. Most enjoyable is the enthusiasm that the authors infuse in their personal encounters with people in Dialogue. And most appreciated is the timeless advice they provide for those stifled in their attempts at Dialogue.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"How to Write Fast Under Pressure" Goes on the Air

I will be doing a 30-minute interview on Book Bites for Kids (www.blogtalkradio.com/bookbitesforkids), hosted by author and radio personality Suzanne Lieurance on Thursday, December 3, at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time. The topic will be my latest book, How to Write Fast Under Pressure. We’ll be talking about the can-do attitude necessary to write efficiently with consistency and confidence. It should be of interest for adults as well as children, so be sure to tune in!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Counting on Nouns: An ESL Guide

Some English words, especially uncountable nouns, don't translate well into other languages. Here is a partial list of uncountable nouns, in bold, which we should use singularly:

  1. My accountant gave me much good advice.
  2. The air is better today.
  3. Her art never fails to impress us.
  4. The coffee from Brazil and Colombia is famous.
  5. The price of electricity fluctuates by area.
  6. Some of the equipment has not arrived.
  7. We will need a lot of furniture.
  8. I threw out the garbage on both floors.
  9. You will need all the information you can get.
  10. She has vast knowledge of her field.
  11. The airline misplaced our luggage.
  12. They wrote music for many years.
  13. Where do you get your news?
  14. There is no easy solution to pollution.
  15. He expected to make more progress.
  16. The research from the labs is inconclusive.
  17. The train, bus, and ferry transportation was delayed.
  18. The traffic is endless in Mexico City.
  19. The water in my town and yours tastes great.
  20. Their work is exceptional.

Other uncountable nouns exist. The only way to master them is memorization. Start studying!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Core Standards a Practical Business Guide

I was reviewing the National Governors Association’s common core standards, in particular their English Language Arts Standards for college and career readiness (www.corestandards.org/Standards/index.htm). The association lists a broad range of competencies in reading, writing, listening, and speaking for adults. The competencies seem practical for managers who need to establish benchmarks for their staff's language skills.

Having traveled the country as a writing consultant for numerous businesses, government agencies, and academic institutions, I see great value in this website. I would suggest that corporate directors of human resources and training administrators study these standards. The site can inform business managers and department supervisors in assessing staff, planning training, and setting expectations.

Friday, October 30, 2009

"Science and Technical Writing" an Important Reference

This week a participant asked me about whether I know of the Philip Rubens book, Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, Second Edition (http://www.amazon.com/Science-Technical-Writing-Manual-Routledge/dp/0415925517/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258839113&sr=1-1). Not only do I know of it, I have used it on many occasions, whenever I’ve wanted Rubens’s take on Global English, audience awareness, technical prose, and specialized terminology. This book is definitely worth a look.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing Fast Course Available for Your Staff

Since the publication of my third book on writing, How to Write Fast Under Pressure (http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Fast-Under-Pressure/dp/0814414850), more of my clients have been inquiring about whether I offer a course on the topic. I do. The course, Writing in a Heartbeat, comes with the book and focuses on the following topics:

  • Getting started quickly to reduce writer's block
  • Revising and editing efficiently to save time
  • Collaborating effectively with writing partners to maximize team assignments
  • Cultivating a can-do attitude to finish assigned writing tasks

Interested? Write me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com or call me at 732-721-7577 to discuss how you can bring this program to your staff.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Great Causes Need Great Supporters

For the first time since I began this blog 58 months and 293 posts ago, I am straying from the topic of writing to make a special announcement about giving. The recession has forced everyone to cut back on spending, and this especially has hurt those organizations that serve the underprivileged individuals of our communities.

With this thought in mind, I introduce you to some of my clients who do extraordinary work on behalf of their constituents:

  • Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (http://www.cshl.edu/), a pioneer researcher in cancer, neuroscience, genomics, and bioinformatics.
  • Common Ground Community (http://www.commonground.org/), a national leader in solutions to homelessness.
  • Independent Living Association (http://www.ilaonline.org/), an exceptional advocate for developmentally disabled individuals.
  • National Urban League (http://www.nul.org/), a civil rights organization doing great things for underserved urban communities.
  • New York Public Library (http://www.nypl.org/), the number one source for sourcing, which is a veritable guardian of knowledge.
  • United Way of New York City (http://www.unitedwaynyc.org/), a great source for providing a general endowment if the more specific organizations do not match your philanthropic interests.

I hope the spirit moves you to give generously to one of these outstanding organizations.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Thanks, Kent School District, for the Writer’s Resources

Here’s a useful site for both student writers and their parents, courtesy of the Kent School District in Washington: http://www.kent.k12.wa.us/curriculum/writing/elem_writing/Bib/WritingProcess.htm. It lists numerous resources for elementary and high school writers on the writing process, essay structure, creativity, English as a second language, and grammar.

Friday, October 02, 2009

"On Writing Well" Still Matters

Thirty-three years and seven editions later, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is as relevant as ever. Zinsser divided the book into four parts (Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes), so it’s easy to get just the ideas you’re looking for. The opening and closing sections are most instructive for the developing nonfiction writer, and the Forms section is generous in examples of descriptive writing from authors like Woody Allen, Alfred Kazin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Eudora Welty. Here’s the link:


Friday, September 25, 2009

"How to Write Fast Under Pressure" Released

My newest book is in print. How to Write Fast Under Pressure (AMACOM Books) results from years of teaching people in the corporate world, as well as on the undergraduate and graduate levels, to write successfully on deadline. It is chock full of sensible reflections and useful tips on dealing with the daily grind of writing for multiple projects with varied purposes and readers. Here is the link at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Fast-Under-Pressure/dp/0814414850/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254093156&sr=8-1

Sunday, September 20, 2009

E-mail and Executive Summary Writing Courses Lead the Way

The two biggest requests that I've received from clients over the past year have been Writing Effective and Efficient E-mail and Powerful Executive Summaries. And those clients have spanned a broad range of sectors and industries: banking, insurance, legal, transportation, government, and nonprofit social services.

The reasons for these calls are simple: the course format and the relevant content. Both of these courses are one-day-only offerings, which suit the intense time pressure exacted on staff these days. Both reflect the real deal: the e-mail course (http://philvassallo.com/writingemail.html) is a natural because e-mail is the means by which most on-the-job writing is done these days; the executive summary course (http://philvassallo.com/executivesummaries.html) is in demand since the challenge is greater than ever to compress huge amounts of critical information into precise, high-level messages for executive review.

The reaction to these courses has been excellent. Participants get to practice writing in real-life situations and receive extensive feedback throughout the day. The requests for repeat offerings tell the story.

Questions? Contact me: Phil@PhilVassallo.com.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 7: Live Online

We all have heard about how Web surfing has contributed to breaking up relationships and production downtime, and how the Internet is little better than the new boob tube.

I don’t buy these notions for a moment, at least not if you’re trying to establish a serious presence for your enterprise.

The Web is where the work is. The available business, writing, and even living ideas to be had on the Internet supersede any potential drawback that comes with the territory. Whether you like it or not, this is the community where anyone in the know is a member. Hang out there. Read whatever you can at key sites. Follow whatever links seem worthwhile. You’ll come home better for it: more informed, thoughtful, and valuable to your endeavor.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 6: Show Up Everywhere

Well, this tip speaks for itself. No matter what you search for these days, you’re bound to find it. This truth works both for and against you. While you can find virtually anything online, searching for something will not necessarily get you what you’re looking for on the first hit. That has happened to you, right?

What to do?

Be ubiquitous. Think of the Twelve Nations:
  1. Alternation – Don’t be a one-hit wonder. Keep writing about contrasting applications to your idea.
  2. Assignation – Hook your readers to your next post or to your next virtual or onsite meeting to extend the relationship.
  3. Combination – Look for links among contrasting industries and disciplines to appear in all of them.
  4. Consternation – Avoid this one! Don’t prophesize gloom and doom, and don’t write cryptically. You want to build an adience, not destroy one.
  5. Culmination – Whatever you communicate, make it end on a note that brings readers to wherever else you want them to go or whatever else you want them do.
  6. Domination – Be out there—always and everywhere.
  7. Examination – Try not to appear shallow while keeping your message brief. Reading the concise genius of Confucius could prove helpful here.
  8. Imagination – Know the trends in your field and write about all of them, however you can.
  9. Recrimination – Don’t use your blog as a means of getting even. Always take the high road. People will respect you for this practice.
  10. Rumination – Reflect wisely on your topic, respecting your readers’ intelligence, to draw a wider audience.
  11. Stagnation – Of course, you don't want this! Keep it fresh by raising the new and not rehashing the old.
  12. Subordination – Don’t let earlier posts die. If they’re helpful to understand what you’re commenting on now, then link posts.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 5: Keep It Simple

When writing in the Web 2.0 world—which is already fading into a new generation of messaging—go for simplicity, on both the language and format levels.

  • Remember people’s attention span. Readers are in and out of your website at lightning speed. They’d better be able to get your message quickly and memorably.
  • Think like a twitterbird. Twitter allows only 140 characters of text per entry. This restriction offers great practice opportunities to get real by beginning with and sticking to the most important point.
  • Use clear, active language. Avoid passive language, and if you’re not sure what that means, look it up. When communicating with your current and prospective clients, you’ll want to be readable, conversational, and personal.


  • Use scanning devices. Set your text in small, digestible chunks, separating sections by headings and bullet points to improve readability and highlight your ideas.
  • Link things. While you may not want to send people away from your webpage, you may want to send them to other parts of your own website. Linking them to ideas is your nonverbal way of extending the conversation. Of course, make those links useful
  • Use visuals. If videos, photos, or illustrations will help, then use them. Make sure they are functional—useful—not just decorative.
  • Offer interactive elements. So many of these are available online. For instance, you can allow for RSS feeds, comments, questionnaires, quizzes, contact links, and much more. Use whatever engages your readers and piques their interest in what you have to offer.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 4: Connect What You’ve Got to What They Need

You might have a good idea to post on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean the people you want to find it will. To maximize their chances of getting to your message, think about what you have to say from their perspective. Remember that they will search based on keywords of their own. Imagine what those keywords or phrases might be and finesse them into your text to ensure that their search engine will pick up your post. Here’s how:
  • Prefer keywords to cute editorial commentary in your headings—be specific to the need of the communities you are trying to reach.
  • Set up your advice, guideline, or insight with a timely, industry-specific overview.
  • Contextualize your most important points with language that your audience might find through a search.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 3: Get There Quickly

Having noted some of the Web 2.0 resources and techniques in the previous two posts, I figure the next question would be, “How can I use them?”

The answer: Very quickly. I realize that most everyone thinks that the Internet already is laden with mindless chitchat, so why bother adding to the chaos? They miss the point, however, if they want to develop a business, cultivate client relationships, or generate ideas for their next project—provided they do so thoughtfully, which means unobtrusively and helpfully.

On the Internet, the moment’s news is the next moment’s antiquity, so novel ideas don’t last. Getting your inventive ideas immediately onto your website, blog, or tweet is key to maintaining a fresh Internet persona. Chances are that numerous hits about your writing topic are already in cyberspace. And if it is groundbreaking, its novelty will wear off fast than you can say “Web 1.0 – Web 2.0.” So the way to write for the web is voluminously and rapidly.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 2: Talk the Talk

What good is talking about Web 2.0 if you don’t know the lingo that goes with it? Here are some simple definitions for the terminology that accompanies Web 2.0 technology.

blog, or, weblog : a web page composed of postings from hosts such as Blogger and WordPress

folksononomy: a spontaneous tagging system used by anyone categorizing web content on sites such as Facebook.

podcast: an audio blog, which can be downloaded to an BlackBerry, ipod, mp3 player, or similar device.

RSS, or, really simple syndication: a format for storing online information to make it available by a broad range of software.

SLATES: The acronym coined by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee as a mnemonic for Web 2.0 techniques, signifying Search (searching by keyword), Links (clicking hyperlinks), Authoring, (creating web content easily), Tags (classifying online content by labeling), Extensions (employing algorithms in making the Web a vast application center), and Signals (using technology like RSS in instantly announcing website changes).

social bookmarking: bookmarking on a website to post favorite websites.

social networking: sites such as Facebook, Linked In and My Space, which connect friends and colleagues by allowing registered users to share interests and skills.

tags: the practice of labeling website content to help users organize and retrieve information.

wiki: a collaboratively edited web page, such as those on Wikipedia.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Web 2.0 Tips, Part 1: Know the Territory

So much hype about Web 2.0, so little understanding! First off, we can argue until the hyperlinks circle to our homepage about what exactly Web 2.0 means. Any two definitions you can read on the Internet seem divergent and vague. (And why are we still capitalizing Internet—is it a sovereign territory, sea, or mountain range?)

Regardless of what we call Web 2.0, articles are appearing and courses are running on the topic, which has more to do with the diversity, interactivity, and pervasiveness (think DIP) of today’s available web tools:
  • Diversity – Users have numerous choices for putting information on the web: community spaces, such as Facebook, Linked In, My Space, Twitter, Wikipedia, and You Tube, as well as individual websites and blogs. The content users may launch also varies, from text and illustrations to photos and videos, or the user may just lay down hyperlinks to that content.
  • Interactivity – All of these sites offer visitors the chance to weave easily through multiple views and to contribute their own comments, images, animation, and hyperlinks.
  • Pervasiveness – Most Web 2.0ers seek a presence on many interlinked sites to expand their message and networking opportunities.

The next six installments of WORDS ON THE LINE will feature some tips to make the most of Web 2.0.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Solid Clearinghouse for Developing Writers

Good writers are also good researchers. They know the best resources available for a whole host of content and language issues. One resource that academic writers might find especially helpful, whether they’re high school, college, or graduate students, or, for that matter, business or technical writers, is the website listing by the International Writer Centers Association:
http://writingcenters.org/resources/writing-centers-online/. Available there are links to writing help from universities throughout the world. Look at the bottom of the list for references for English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) sites.

Friday, July 24, 2009

CareerBuilder.com: A Useful Resource

If you are seeking to sharpen your professional skills by gaining job-seeking tips or taking a online courses, you should bookmark http://www.careerbuilder.com/.

This website provides asynchronous training covering a broad range of technical and interpersonal skills. And some of the training is free. I took a session of a training course myself and found the content relevant, the depth appropriate, and the methodology effective. Also available are how-to articles intended to strengthen the skills of job applicants.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Top 20 Errors a Good Bookmark

Bedford / St. Martin’s is a publisher well known for its vast selection of quality writer’s resources, such as The Business Writer’s Handbook by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, Walter E. Oliu; Technical Communication by Mike Markel, The Bedford Handbook by Diana Hacker; and St. Martin’s Guide to Writing by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper. It also has a helpful website, "Andrea Lunsford’s list of 20 common writing errors": http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/easywriter3e/20errors/. Lunsford is the author of several popular volumes in the Bedford / St. Martin’s English composition series.

Friday, July 10, 2009


My first book on writing at work, The Art of On-the-Job Writing, recently went into its second printing, according to the publisher, First Books. The book focuses on writing effectively (quality) and efficiently (speed). You can read passages of the book by clicking here: The Art of On the Job Writing. Or you can learn more about the book by clicking here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php/cPath/53/products_id/144.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Twittering Like Mad

Since June 26, I have been twittering the world to offer tips on writing and creativity as well as to lay down an interesting idea or two. The posts there are extremely concise, and most provide links to great websites. My site is www.twitter.com/PhilVassallo, but you can access it at www.PhilVassallo.com (click on “Twittering”).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 12: List

I conclude this 6-week, 12-part series on breaking writer’s block with a favorite tip for any kind of business, technical, or academic writer: List ideas by brainstorming and organizing.
Suppose you want to recommend subleasing your conference room for after-business-hour meetings. Here’s how listing works:

Step 1: BrainstormList every idea related to your topic.
Sublease the conference room
Income potential of $25,000 per year
Hours 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
Post ads in office and meeting space rentals section of Craig’s List and The Tribune.
No effect on our daily operation

Step 2: Organize – Move, add, and delete ideas based on their relevance and degree of importance to your topic. (Note the idea changes below since step 1.)

¶ 1: Propose subleasing the conference room to offset overhead costs

¶ 2: Proven income potential
  • Other building tenants in our city sublease successfully according to The Tribune
  • We would be the first to sublease in our commercial park, so we can beat the competition
  • Income potential of $25,000 per year

¶ 3: No effect on our daily operation

  • Hours 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
  • The conference room has a separate entrance to the hallway to maintain office security
  • A tenant deposit would help defray possible damages

¶ 4: Means of getting started:

  • Post ads in office and meeting space rentals section of Craig’s List and The Tribune.

Would you have all the ideas you need to write the draft? Probably not. But nothing is as intimidating to a writer who can’t get started as staring at a vast, blank monitor. At least you can now start writing your draft. I hear it all the time from participants in my writing-process courses: This technique works—use it!

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Friday, July 03, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 11: Think Different

A tried and true method of generating writing energy is to do something you’ve never done before and then write about it. It could be striking up a conversation with your newspaper vendor, who has never before exchanged more than two words with you. It could be walking down the block to study details about the houses in your neighborhood. Or you could stop by a rarely-visited museum; go to a ballgame in a local playing field; take a class at an adult school; call a long-lost friend or relative; paint a cubbyhole, canvas, or car; learn the lyrics of a song and sing them; or try your hand at a new skill, like knitting, pottery, a musical instrument, or a foreign language. Notice what makes the experience unique for you. How does the experience make you feel? What skill, sensitivity, or awareness is the experience awakening in you? Take notes of the smallest details to ensure you don't forget them.

At best, you might learn something new, break an old, bad habit, create a new, better one, or invigorate a part of your brain that could use the exercise. If nothing else, you’ll emerge from this experience by returning to your writing desk with plenty to write about.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 10: Forget about It

Writer’s block is a state of mind, isn’t it? Then if you’re in that state, move to another state! Some people do this at their desk by assuming a yoga pose, some by meditating, others by praying, and still others by the trendiest positive thinking technique pulled from the best-seller charts. Whatever works—just block out writer’s block.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 9: Work Out

Writer’s block could be a constant source of contention for you because you’re not in physical shape. It’s no secret that working out invigorates the body and enhances endurance during the workday. Enough isn’t said, however, about how a fit body contributes to a fit mind.

So here are two thoughts to consider. John J. Ratey. M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, believes that regular exercise directly affects the functioning of the brain (http://www.johnratey.com/). Also, Benjamin Opipari, Ph.D., a writing instructor for Howrey LLP, an international law firm, insists that a consistent running regimen can induce creative ideas for writers (http://www.benjaminopipari.com/).

Get the picture? If you want to keep your writing pencil sharp, work out!

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 8: Talk it Out

Maybe you get writer’s block because you can’t get out of your way. It might just be that you are the problem: your paralyzing perfectionism, or your crippling lack of confidence, or your inhibiting inability to relax, or your slothful lack of urgency.

Then get over yourself by checking in with teammates sitting in the next cube or phoning friends. Explain to them what you’re working on. Just by talking it out with someone willing to listen, you might get on the right track to completing your first draft. You could also get invaluable insights from them as well.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 7: Take a Hike

Nothing can clear the clutter from your head as much as getting away from it all—if just for five minutes. Take a walk around the office, in the parking lot, down the street, through the park, or across the field. Start by thinking about as little as you can (nothing is ideal). Then slowly let the topic you’ll write about enter into your consciousness. Visualize the finished form of the document you have yet to compose. Read what it says. Make sure you have a pad and pen in your pocket to jot any ideas you want to remember. Now you’re ready to start drafting that message. Get back to your desk—hurry!

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 6: Recycle

Nothing under the sun is original, right? Then why not get your mind focused on writing by borrowing something you yourself wrote? Look through files of proposals, reports, or meeting minutes, or just retrieve a starting sentence or two from a jumpstart the composing process. Remember that the intention of the first draft is simply to get all your thoughts down. The finessing of language can come later.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 5: Rewrite

Sometimes you might have a legitimate reason for contending with writer’s block: weariness, brain drain, or environmental discomforts, for instance. It may help in such situations to know that writing is a process, requiring distinct steps of planning, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading. If you get stuck, maybe you could move to a less taxing step of the writing process.

The creative steps (planning and drafting) seem more demanding for most writers, while the analytical steps (revising, editing, and proofreading) require greater attention to self-criticism, rules, and structure. Why not move to those tasks to maximize your writing time? Shift from the first draft of document one to the second draft of document 2. Your next transition—from rewriting document 2 to drafting document 1—might be a smoother one.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Friday, June 05, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 4: Imagine Readers

OK, so you’re intellectually paralyzed, unable to write the first word of an executive summary that your boss has asked you to draft for her boss. Writing not to the next level but the level above that one—that’ll land a lot of writers in a creative dead end!

One way to deal with this dilemma is to picture yourself in a face-to-face meeting with all your readers. What are their concerns? Would they counter your statements with statements of their own? Are the who, what, when, where, why, and how enough, or would you need more specific details, perhaps three what’s and four how’s? Write the dialogue as it unfolds in your mind. If your fingers can’t keep up with the keyboard, then use a microcassette recorder and speak the dialogue aloud and play it back when you’re ready to copy what you’ve “heard.”

Again, the idea is to break through writer’s block, to get the creative juices flowing. Once they do, jump into drafting mode.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Monday, June 01, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 3: See Connections

This tip for breaking writer’s block cannot be overstated. Our failure to produce words is often the result of our failure to see connections between ideas where most people see no connection. Consider the connections that Mario Puzo saw between love of family and ruthless killing, which reaped him a fortune when writing The Godfather. Or the connection Pablo Picasso realized between contrasting perspectives of the human image in bringing cubism to a world audience. Or the relationship between electronics and music that gave birth to the synthesizer and forever changed our concept of music.

So there you are at work, stuck, trying in vain to get started on a report about a three-day information technology conference you just attended. You know what you experienced at the conference, but you don’t know what to write about. Where do you turn? The company’s mission statement? Its new initiatives? A market trend no one in your company has yet addressed? The clothes you wore today? The unseasonal weather? The Los Angeles Lakers’ chances of winning another NBA championship? A Rembrandt painting you saw at a recent art exhibition? The coffee crop in Bolivia? The sticky F4 key on your laptop? A 16-year-old high school student you saw in an elevator this morning with a 1950s hairstyle? The price of cotton during the American Civil War? The likelihood of Keanu Reeves recording a platinum song?

The answer is: All the above. As long as you keep your purpose in mind—to make the conference report relevant to management—you can let your imagination run during the planning or drafting stages. Let serendipity happen. When you’re struggling through a draft, take an everything-is-connected mindset rather than a self-defeating what’s-that-got-to-do-with-it attitude. Good things will start to happen.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 2: Ask Questions

Writing at work is like engaging in a dialogue. Take a look at these two sample sentences:
  1. Purchasing a SmartyPants Smartphone for our sales representatives would enhance their client relationships, data sharing capabilities, and accessibility to management from remote locations.
  2. On Friday, May 22, 2009, at 2:46 a.m., a significant event occurred when CompuGook Version 13.7 crashed at Server 16, causing a service interruption of 11 minutes, 23 seconds, and a save failure of 34 transactions valued at $52,963.07.
Think of the questions these statements answer. Sentence 1 answers five: What should we purchase? For whom should we purchase it? Would it enhance the sales representatives’ client relationships? Would it enhance their data sharing capabilities? Would it enhance their accessibility to management from remote locations? Sentence 2 answers eight: When did a significant event occur? To what did the event occur? At what location did it occur? How long did it last? Did it cause a service interruption? Did it cause a save failure? How many transactions were affected? How much income was at stake?

Now, let’s think in reverse. These are the very questions that your readers would want answered when reviewing a proposal (sentence 1) or root-cause analysis (sentence 2). Of course, the writer has more questions to answer (e.g., for sentence 1: What is the cost of the smartphone? Is the smartphone service good? And for sentence 2: What was the cause of the crash? Did we recover the transactions?). But we should not take for granted what the questions are.

So here’s a good way to get started when you’re stuck: Write down the questions your readers would have about your topic—and then answer them. Before you know it, you’ll be pounding away at the keyboard in a freeform burst of creative energy.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 1: Read

Have you ever sat at your writing desk wasting time instead of moving your fingers forward on the keyboard? This problem plagues even the strongest writers. The difference between the seasoned and novice writer, however, is in knowing what to do when writer’s block comes knocking on their door. The next dozen posts of WORDS ON THE LINE will feature tips on breaking writer’s block.

Here’s a first suggestion. The next time you’re pulling the hair out of your head, fingers paralyzed, unable to create the next word, try reading. Pick up a book by a favorite author, or browse a magazine or newspaper—anything—to connect yourself to language. The ideas you’ll get from reading may prove the perfect transition to your writing task. We are constantly associating ideas from one area of interest to another. For instance, you may be struggling over a how to best present an argument in favor of a controversial course of action for your business. Opening a passage by an admired writer—especially one in a discipline similar to yours—might just give you the inspiration you need. Or say you can’t turn a phrase the way you’d like. Shifting gears by thumbing through an interesting essay or op-ed piece might give you what you’re looking for: focused, artful, powerful, sentences.

To be a good reader you do not have to be a good writer, but to be good writer you have to be a good reader as well. Reading keeps you in the language groove.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Online Courses on the Way

I have decided to offer online minicourses and webinars in 2009. They will include the content on my one-, two-, and three-day writing workshops, and they will cover a broad range of writing topics, such as e-mail, grammar, customer service correspondence, executive summaries, proposals, reports, audit reports, meeting minutes, instructions, marketing materials, Web 2.0, English as a Second Language, and much more.

These courses will be ideal for people in numerous situations:
  • clients who are not inclined or have the time to attend my in-depth sessions
  • those who feel a small time and cost investment would better serve their needs
  • writers who want just a refresher of the key concepts covered in the lengthier course

More announcements will appear on this blog as they become available. Keep posted!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Tips from a Novelist Apt for the Workplace Writer

In an April 28 article appearing on the Writer’s Digest website, author Karen Dionne shares what she learned from the work of mega-hit author Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure, among many other blockbuster novels). The article, “Michael Crichton’s Top 5 Writing Lessons,” offers three suggestions that work best for the fiction writer: surprise your reader, keep the clock ticking by maintaining tension, and play fast and loose with the facts).

But the two other tips are of immediate use for the business and technical writer: challenge your reader and get your facts straight. We should never assume that our readers are our intellectual inferiors; on the contrary, we should challenge them to consider new ideas based on compelling, accurate evidence. Here’s a link to the brief article: http://writersdigest.com/article/michael-crichton-top-5-writing-lessons

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Most of the World in One Room

A group of 19 engineers was in attendance for an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) writing class I recently conducted in New York City. Counting myself, I realized that to my pleasure, but not to my surprise, each of us represented a different nation of origin (listed in order of greatest population): China, India, United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Ukraine, Colombia, Poland, Afghanistan, Dominican Republic, Bulgaria, and Slovakia! In a world of 6.7 billion souls, those 20 countries represent only 9 percent of all the 220-plus nations and territories on Planet Earth, but their 3.9 billion residents account for 58 percent of the world’s population—more than half the world!

What’s the point? I could think of three:
  1. It doesn’t get more diverse than working in New York; for this very reason, I love working there.
  2. It goes to show that the United States does not need to make English the official national language, since so many people want to learn English, which has become the unofficial language of the world marketplace, anyway.
  3. It proves that the term ESL is a misnomer because for the multilingual professionals who come to my writing courses, English is the first language of their jobs. What they do at home is their business; however, they are all well aware that English is their first on-the-job language. They desire to get it right—and they leave the course feeling their progress.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Text Me Your Best Offer!

Even multimillion-dollar real estate deals are settled by e-mails and text messages these days, according to “The E-Mail Handshake” by Vivian S. Toy (The New York Times, Real Estate, page 1, April 26, 2009). While not all real estate agents, homebuyers, and sellers may agree on the virtues of e-mail negotiation, trying to stop the trend is like using an umbrella to block a tsunami. So the best we can do is to review the benefits and drawbacks of e-mail negotiation, and to counter the negatives without diminishing the positives.

In summary, the article says the plusses include the permanency of recording “conversations” and the convenience of informing everyone simultaneously. On the minus side are the difficulty in communicating nuance and emotion as well as the confusion that can result from missing, incomplete, or ambiguous information.

To resolve potential conflicts, pick up the phone or have a face-to-face meeting with the parties involved—even though another e-mail is sure to follow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dear? Hi? Hello? Greetings? Good morning? Ugh! Sincerely? Regards? Best wishes? All the best? Cheers? OMG!

Everybody wants to get it right. Right? How do you open and close an email? Would any of the ones above work all the time? Since I hear that question more than once a week, I know that people really want a definitive response to their question about the perfect salutation and complimentary closing. Their problems are compounded when they have multiple readers: Should they write “All? Team? Good day? To the Acting Members of the Stanislaus Sangerhausen Boulevard Flowering Pear Tree Lining Ad Hoc Committee?”

Fuggedaboutit. Here’s how I generally answer this question when it pops up: Address people in an email the way you would if you were addressing them as they stand before you and as the occasion dictates. If you tend to say, “Hi Folks,” then write that; if you just start with your message without a greeting, then do that. Whatever—just make sure that the corporate culture calls for your chosen approach. You can also look around to see what others whose communication style you respect are doing, and then follow suit.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ted.com: Endless Educational and Entertainment Opportunities

Do you want to enjoy yourself and learn something or find inspiration while you’re at it? Check out any of the amazing 200 talks on a stunning range of topics on TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, Design: www.ted.com). Here are just a few examples:

  • Artist Miru Kim’s discussion about her photographic work of urban industrial ruins throughout the world
  • An exploration into the creative process by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
  • An examination of our unrealized potential to love classical music by renowned conductor and educator Benjamin Zander
  • Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s talk about the causes that incite human beings to commit evil acts

Many thanks to my dear friend, Dr. Bob DiCuio, Founder of Wall Street Psych Consulting, for bringing this great resource to my attention.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hold Those Hyphens

A participant in one of my workshops, D. Hom, asked a question about hyphenating expressions such as “end of year.”

Determining what to hyphenate depends on whether the adjectives appear before or after the noun. If the sentence reads, “These are the end-of-year returns,” then the hyphens are necessary; if the sentence reads, “These are the returns for the end of year,” then the hyphens are unnecessary.

As the saying goes, “Punctuation is to writing as intonation is to speaking”; therefore, read your sentences aloud and you will hear yourself squeezing together the words requiring hyphenation. Do you hear the difference in the hyphenated and non-hyphenated italicized words below?

I work full time.
I am a full-time employee.

She has had a tenure of ups and downs.

She has had an up-and-down tenure.

The election was an opportunity that came to President Obama once in a lifetime

The election was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for President Obama.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

E-mail Webcast a Hit

Yesterday my webinar for the American Management Association (AMA) went exactly according to plan. How to Write a Darn Good E-mail generated abundant, spirited participation from attendees across the country as I fielded challenging questions that clarified the key teaching points, which included getting to the point, structuring messages clearly, and coming across professionally.

The 90-minute midday session featured two case studies, one from a manager to a subordinate and another from a salesperson to a potential client. These situations served as springboards for discussions about e-mail best practices. The program went well with the help of Richard Bradley, AMA portfolio manager and host; David Summers, webcast producer; and Kevin Lee, director.

You can get plenty of free webcasts on a whole host of business issues at the AMA website: http://www.amanet.org/events.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Taking a Chance on Writing

During a break in a writing seminar, two managers were discussing the challenges of writing with me. One of them, Rajanikant Ray, concluded, “If you don’t write, you don’t make any mistakes.”

With this sly observation, Mr. Ray, an engineer and project manager for New York City Transit, suggested that only the thoughtless, the powerless, the idle, and the frightened do not make mistakes because they don’t write at all. The more we do write, the more we willingly express ideas subject to correction, misinterpretation, and rebuttal. But what’s the alternative? Communicating nothing? Those of us with important jobs to do would rather write and take those risks. If we don’t, how else can we get the job done—and improve? Thanks, Raj, for your confident summation!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hold the Date: October 20 is National Day on Writing

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) is busy creating a National Day on Writing, slated for October 20, 2009, as a way of recognizing all kinds of writers—students, retirees workers—wherever we are—home, school, work, community group, vacation.

In connection with this event, the NCTE has started a digital archive called the National Gallery of Writing and invited anyone interested to contribute a piece of writing. The idea is to make available to the world a searchable website on any kind of writing.

Want to get involved? Here’s the link: www.ncte.org/action/dayonwriting

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

IDKWYTA! Texting Is Good for You!

Sometimes I get an e-message that looks something like this:

Pls c atchd doc 4 wc thx

Just in case you need help deciphering the message, it says, “Please see the attached document for the writing class. Thanks.” When I get such notes, I like writing back:


(I don’t know what you’re talking about.)

But I’m just having some fun, because the truth is that text-message style doesn’t really bother me—as long as I can understand it. The School Library Journal (http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/) reports that at least two studies, one by the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and the other by the University of Toronto, have suggested that texting is actually helpful in developing reading and writing skills among young children. The sentiment is that writing for fun in any form is better practice than none at all. Here’s the link to the article:

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Putting the Spotlight on Grammar

A client kicked off one of my writing classes by announcing that today, March 4, is National Grammar Day. That comment immediately focused participants on a reason for attending the workshop. Co-sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), the event aims to raise public awareness about linguistic correctness in everyday usage. The SPOGG website (http://nationalgrammarday.com/) offers several grammar tips and links to other helpful websites.

My thanks to Steven Choi, Director of Training and Performance Evaluations at the School Construction Authority, for bringing National Grammar Day to my attention.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

AMA E-mail Webinar Scheduled

Some time back, I had the pleasure of doing my first of two webinars for the American Management Association (AMA). Titled How to Write a Darn Good E-mail, the program featured a 45-minute talk with AMA Portfolio Manager Richard Bradley and me about the do’s and don’ts of e-mail writing. Some 1,500 people across the USA tuned into the program, which received high ratings.

I have now expanded that webinar for AMA to a 90-minute session, to be broadcast live on Tuesday, March 31, from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern—and registrations are flying in. Here are the key teaching points:
  • Understanding challenges of e-mail communication
  • Getting started quickly: idea lists, the three As (aim, audience, area)
  • Getting to the point: strong subject lines, openings and closings
  • Structuring your message clearly
  • Helpful guidelines for structuring your message
  • Maintaining a professional tone by recognizing what is and is not appropriate for e-communications
  • Polishing your e-mail for a professional style for yourself and your organization
I can’t wait to present it! You can register by clicking this link: http://www.amanet.org/events/how-to-write-a-darn-good-email/

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Ain’t What It Used to Be

These are exciting times for writers and writing teachers—that is, if you’re open to change. Remarkably, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has published a report urging writing instructors to develop new strategies in harmony with web-based technologies. The NCTE, a leading authority on effective communication, traditionally has served as the guardian of the “five-paragraph essay”; however, its recent publication, Writing in the 21st Century, concludes with a clarion call to create new models of writing and to design curricula and teaching strategies that address those models.

Adding to the credibility of the study is the status of its author, Kathleen Blake Yancey, who is a past president of the NCTE and a distinguished professor English and Director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University. Yancey is a renowned speaker on composition theory, an award-winning author or 12 books and 65 articles and book chapters on writing, and the co-founder and co-editor of the journal Assessing Writing.

Writing in the 21st Century traces the history of writing and writing instruction in America, beginning with a description of how science and progressivism influenced rhetorical theory. By the end of the twentieth century, the greatest movers of writing instruction were the introduction of the writing process and the personal computer in the classroom. Thus ended what Yancey calls the “Age of Composition.”

Today, digital technologies, assembled under the term “Web 2.0,” have created the next great wave. Web 2.0, whose definition remains arguable, refers to the pervasiveness of websites like Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, which have inarguably and irrevocably altered communication in at least four vital ways:
  • Everyone is an author. To count the number of blogs, or online journals, in the world is to state an instantly outdated statistic. At least 113 million blogs have popped up in a matter of a few years, and that number increases with every word you read in this article. Blogs on any topic are available: world leaders broadcasting weekly messages to constituents, couples proclaiming their love for each other, self-appointed consumer experts pushing for more synthetic fabrics, wannabe health authorities countering the best advice of the medical establishment, bikers relating adventures from their most recent cross-country trip, terrorists exhorting comrades to arms, parent groups extolling the virtues of homeschooling, elementary school children ranting about their teachers, and aimless writers advancing pointless arguments. Indeed, Web 2.0 has given the world an attitude that screams “I don’t need anyone’s approval to write the way I see fit.” In turn, this attitude has fashioned new approaches to written expression.
  • Everyone can evaluate. Anyone can stake a claim to immortality by adding a review of a book or CD on Amazon.com, praising or condemning a teacher on RateMyTeacher.com, rebutting postings on any of these websites, or posting their poetry on a number of amateur literary websites. Limited controls at these electronic community bulletin boards ensure that anyone can assert their anonymous opinions about anything they like or don’t. These assessments seem to matter even more than the A’s or F’s that teachers bestow on student papers.
  • Information is easily accessible. A natural extension of the billion-writer planet is the abundance of information on any imaginable topic. Faster than I can type “cut and paste,” students can cut and paste relevant content for their essays. This practice renders obsolete the instructional materials and assessment tools of even the most proactive teachers.
  • Words are not enough. Videos, PowerPoint decks, photos, animation, icons, hyperlinks, and a whole host of other visually stimulating gimmicks accompany most web-based writing. People now tend to read in smaller chunks, clicking on links that depart from the original story they’d been reading. On the surface, this exercise may appear to be the ultimate manifestation of the Attention Deficit Disorder Age. Upon closer examination, however, one would find that readers are not always looking for transitions in stories—by clicking on those hyperlinks, they’re creating their own transitions.

Anyone challenging the assumption that reading habits have changed as a result of Web 2.0 had better take note of the bad news hitting the newspaper industry: The Denver Rocky Mountain News closed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has stopped printing only to maintain a scaled-down web presence, the Tucson Citizen may soon fold, and many others are facing their demise. People don’t need it on paper if they’ve can get it on the BlackBerry.

How will Web 2.0 affect writing instruction? Who knows for sure, since we’re still trying to define what it means to write these days. But one thing is for sure: the word and the image have become inextricably linked, so we communicators have to deal with this new reality.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Training Remains a Hot Topic

Despite the adage, “In a recession, the first thing to bite the dust is training,” how interesting that training remains a hot topic these days. Businesses seem to be seeking more support for their shrinking ranks to ensure that the best among them get even better. In fact, even individuals are seeking coaches out of their own pocket in a broad range of disciplines. Evidently, these proactive folks believe that they have to be ready for any opportunity that might pop up in these unstable days—and my experience over these past few months have shown that they are popping up all the time and all over the place. Therefore, one must always be “in training,” even outside the training room.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“Lessons Learned” by Harry J. Martin, December 14, 2008) draws the same conclusion. The author, an associate professor of management and labor relations at Cleveland State University, mentions some excellent pointers for employees to keep on top of their game, including:
  • Logging what they have learned and turning into a concrete action plan
  • Seeking help from their peers and managers in tracking and developing their skills
  • Accessing experts in the specific skills they aim to improve.
For sure, companies have to make training real for their staff by conducting post-training assessments and monitoring their skill development. Once the educational opportunity is sought by the employee, supported by the manager, and evaluated by the company, training becomes a winning proposition.

Thanks to Peter Aviles of New York City Transit for bringing the article to my attention.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Message with a Semblance of a Sentence

Four long years ago, The New York Times published “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence” an article by Sam Dillon describing the sad state of affairs in business writing. To prove the point, Dillon relies on the now well-known study by the National Commission on Writing, which asserts that a third of employees in major US corporations write poorly and that businesses were investing as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training. The article cites numerous examples of disjointed phrases, misspellings, improper punctuation, and absent capitalization to support the claim of business executives and writing professors that e-mail has become the main culprit of the downfall of clear, concise, and correct writing.

Not much has changed since December 2004 to improve business writing skills; in fact, even more pressure has come into the workplace to deter staff from writing with a professional polish. Consider text messaging!

Well, we writing teachers might not win every battle, but we keep trying to win a linguistic skirmish here or there as when we can. Here are two tips as a start:
  1. Treat everything you write at work as if it might be read by your chief executive.
  2. Respect your chief executive’s need to receive clear, concise written messages.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New Half-Day Seminars Available

In these difficult economic times (aren’t you already sick of hearing that phrase?), the need for training has not diminished, but the availability of staff has. As a result, several of my clients are calling for half-day classes, programs which may impart a nugget or two of useful information that may help staff back at office.

This request has led me to offer three new half-day programs:
  • Writing in a Heartbeat, which offers tips on writing quickly on demand
  • Making Your E-mail Fly, a revised course that focuses on creating clear, concise e-mails
  • Briefing Briefly, a condensed mini-course on executive summary writing

Clients subscribing to these courses have said that they are right on the mark because they hit the few most important points to create gold standard messages under tight time constraints. If you think any of these programs might be useful to your staff, please reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Punctuate by How It Feels

Renowned American essayist Russell Baker once wrote that punctuation is to writing as intonation is to speaking. This advice means that if you read your sentences aloud, you will usually hear where the periods, question marks, commas, and hyphens go.

This point was well illustrated in one of my seminars by Magda Hanna, a customer service representative at the Provident Bank. After she correctly punctuated a sentence with multiple commas, I asked Ms. Hanna how she knew the answer.

“I went by how it feels,” she said.

We had not yet discussed the punctuation rules applying to that sentence, yet she had the answer. The idea makes sense, provided you know the general uses of each punctuation mark. Read the sentences aloud, and you’ll probably punctuate just fine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Structure Rules!

My book The Art of E-mail Writing is built on 21 maxims, one of them being “structure rules.” With a solid sense of structure, writers can communicate multiple items to diverse audiences and systematically convey the most complex issues to the least informed readers.

I was illustrating this point in a writing class by pointing to the strong organization of a participant’s writing sample. Another participant, Julie Wang, an underwriter from the Provident Bank, summarized the critique beautifully when she said, “Structure has no language.”

What a terrific thought! Good structure transcends language skills. Without first knowing the best order to convey the many ideas that reader needs to know, we’re just wasting our time trying to create good sentences, which may be meaningless to our purpose. Get the structure in order first, and then elaborate.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Website Launched

I am excited to report the release of my revised website, www.PhilVassallo.com. I have not been one for a lot of flashing bells and whistles on my website because I believe that people visiting my site just want information on my writing courses, writing assessment program, or writing and editing services, and maybe some writing tips available on my blog. Well it’s all there, thanks to the user-friendly tools and reasonably priced services available at Network Solutions.

I hope you find something helpful to you at the website!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Using Mnemonics

I have often relied on mnemonics (memory aids) to remember important ideas. First-letter mnemonics have been especially helpful. For example, I remember learning the five American Great Lakes in elementary school by associating them with the word HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. I recalled the order from the sun of the nine planets by the sentence “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). Now that Pluto is no longer considered a planet, the slightly revised mnemonic still works: “My very educated mother just served us nothing!” Once I could not recall all seven of the deadly sins until my friend Harry Kamish said, “PALE GAS: Pride, Avarice, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth.” How can I forget now?

I use a lot of these tricks and tips in my writing classes. This practice reminded one course participant, Ted Lewis, a Senior Territory Representative of Dentsply International, of what he used as an Air Force recruiter. “Our mantra was MATTRESS,” he said, “Money, Advancement, Training, Travel, Recreation, Education, Security, and Satisfaction. That’s how I still remember those eight enlisting benefits.”

Here’s one I use for the writing process, if you want to write Pretty Darn Quickly: Plan, Draft, Quality control, or PDQ. Playing these memory games is a great help when trying to cram for tests, recall key deliverables to clients, or just retain several points from a meeting.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Try Something Different, Like Writing

An old friend I was interviewing for my new book, How to Write Fast under Pressure (AMACOM Books, 2009) reminded me of the importance of keeping things fresh by writing.

My friend, Matthew J. Loscalzo, is Executive Director of Supportive Care Medicine for City of Hope in Duarte, California. Matt is a leading authority on pain management with administrative, clinical, and academic credentials from the best institutions in the country. He has three decades of research and practical experience in dealing with patients and their families as they cope with terminal illnesses, and he has lectured around the world on palliative care. Listening to Matt is always a learning opportunity.

When it comes surviving the loss of a loved, says Loscalzo, “Time won’t time heal all wounds. Sometimes, the grief can never be lessened.”

Matt urges people coping with grief to write. “You can break out of grief not by trying harder but by trying less. Try something different. Writing is a way of fueling the executive function of the brain,” he concludes. The executive function is the part of the brain that controls emotions, organizes issues, and solves problems.

Need inspiration? Do something different—anything. Really. I hope one of those things is writing because by writing we get better at it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Virtues of Waiting

Here’s a memorable comment from a seminar participant about thoughtful writing.

In discussing the tricky business of internal proposals, I noted that proposing an action to our boss implies heaps of issues that could get us in trouble. First, we are suggesting that the boss is presiding over a problem. We may be also insinuating that he might be the cause of a problem. Third, we are indicating that he might not be aware of the problem. Next, we are assuming that he agrees it is a problem. Also, we are implying that we know the solution to the problem better than he does. Finally, we are putting our boss to work, certain that he needs to solve this problem right away.

I told the class participants that they need to ensure that none of these implications surface in their writing. They should avoid any inkling of superiority, condescension, or know-it-all posturing. They need to see matters from the boss’s viewpoint. “We need,” I said, “to write the proposal to our manager as if we’re speaking to him on his worst day.”

At this point, a course participant, who is a regional manager of a commercial bank, blurted, “If I know it’s his worst day, I’d wait another day.”

Needless to say, we all laughed. But in his joke is a profound insight: It’s all in the timing. I can remember when I was a marketing director for a nonprofit agency, I recommended numerous courses of action that fell on deaf ears—only to see some of those ideas come to pass months or even years later. Maybe I was a visionary, but clearly I had a bad sense of timing. As Sir Francis Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, said, “The credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

So I suppose that course participant is right: If timing is the missing element in delivering a winning proposal, then wait a day!