Monday, December 27, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 6: Create a Prompt Library

Writing prompts are a fun way to get started in writing. The topics are bountiful, so create a library of them for whenever you are contending with writer’s block. Here are a few examples:

From the Ifs, Ands, and Buts File:
  • IF I had only a notebook and a pen AND were stranded in an igloo with an Inuit family BUT had no mobile phone coverage …
  • IF my mother and father met three years after they did AND were living independent, single lives BUT were both extremely successful at their jobs ….

From the People, Places, and Things Files:

  • An elderly NAVAHO WOMAN standing outside the SUPERMARKET was selling GIRL SCOUT COOKIES …
  • My DENTIST bumps into me in the GRAND CANAL of Venice drinking bottled WATER

From the Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral File:

  • A RABBIT would not let go of the CARROT it was chomping on as it scampered to the barn during a HAILSTORM …
  • The TAXICAB DRIVER drove past a CORNFIELD, he realized he was on the wrong side of the MOUNTAIN …

From the 5W & H File:

  • The person WHO invented the wheel …
  • WHAT is least likely to happen to me if I won the lottery is …
  • WHERE the country’s next military deployment will be …
  • WHEN human evolved from their former species, the knowledge they took …
  • WHY President Richard Nixon did not destroy the White House tapes is a matter of …
  • HOW Captain Edward John Smith died aboard Titanic in 1912 …

From the 3A File (Analysts, Artists, and Athletes):

  • SIGMUND FREUD had little to say to ANDRÉS SEGOVIA when DAVID VILLA scored another goal against Austria because ...
  • ALBERT EINSTEIN postulated that LEONARDO DA VINCI and MUHAMMAD ALI understood their craft as well as did his because ...

Books by Philip Vassallo

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 5: Introduce Random Folks

What if President Barack Obama met Chairman Mao Zedong in Majorca? Or Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda met astronaut Virgil Grissom in Aruba? No let’s stretch these scenarios some more: What if Obama met Johannes Sebastian Bach in eleventh-century India, Zedong met Francis of Assisi on the Christopher Columbus-skippered Santa María in the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Neruda met Genghis Khan in an Internet café in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2004, and Virgil Grissom met El Greco at the Parthenon in Athens in 430 BC? What would these characters say to each other? How would they interact in their new environment?

Maybe you have nothing to write about concerning these historical figures, or maybe you couldn’t care less to write about them. But if you’re in a writing funk, it might be a great idea to introduce random characters to each other to see how they would interact in a time and environment unfamiliar to them. Maybe you’d get Obama talking to Bach not about American politics or Baroque music but about the reasonable price of food in Calcutta. Maybe Zedong would ask Francis not whether he agrees that Communism is an antidote for Christianity but whether he knows of antidotes to seasickness during their journey to the New World. Maybe Neruda and Khan would not analyze twentieth-century Spanish poetry and thirteenth-century Mongolian empires but would complain about how surfing the Internet does not compensate for the severe cold and total darkness of Alaskan winters. Maybe Grissom and El Greco would not exchange ideas on spaceflight or painting but they would talk admiringly of the Athenian view from the Acropolis. And those ideas—the price of food, the remedies for common illnesses, the weather, and the panoramic landscapes—are what drive narratives and preoccupy characters in fiction.

I am not suggesting that you write an entire treatise on such anachronistic encounters. Not even an entire paragraph. Just enough—whatever it takes—to make connections to the characters in the places and times you have placed them. You are likely to borrow some of their dialogue for your own characters.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 4: Work Differently

I consider myself a creature of habit. Many of us do, but we’re more flexible, more adaptable, than we might think. When we wake up a few minutes late, we don’t refuse to get out bed and wait until tomorrow when we wake up on time. When an emergency or tragedy strikes, we don’t say to ourselves, “But I had plans momentarily, so I will keep them.” When our bosses tell us that we need to show up 15 minutes early or stay an hour late to meet a pressing business need, we don’t say, “Sorry, but my work mind functions only from 9 to 5.” We deal with situations as they pop up, often in spite of our best-laid plans.

The same goes for our writing system. If you notice that you’re just not producing at the same level as usual, then maybe the problem is not you but your system. For instance, I well know that I create best early in the morning, even before sunrise, but my work as a writing consultant often demands that I leave the house as early as 5:30 a.m. When this is the case, I need a Plan B, which, needless to say, is to write at night. I have a Plan C and a Plan D as well. If I hit the late evening too tired to write anything creatively, I turn to those moments in the writing process that do not demand much creativity: revising, editing, and proofreading. Or I do some planning by researching more about my topic.

So how can you work differently? Listen to music when you’re writing, or turn off the music if you always listen to music. Find a different time to work, or a different place. Start on an entirely
new topic unrelated to your current writing project. Spend more time reading or researching and less time drafting, or spend more time drafting but at different intervals. Try longhand writing when staring at the computer is not cutting it. Take a walk or do some other exercise before and during your writing. The possibilities are limitless, depending on your system. Breaking routine can unlock the door to your next burst of creativity.

Books by Philip Vassallo
How to Write Fast Under Pressure
  • The Art of E-mail Writing
  • The Art of On-the-Job Writing
  • The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy
  • Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 3: Try Something New

    When I was in a college journalism course, the professor assigned the class to report on a new experience. As a jazz fan, I already had plans that weekend to see Lance Hayward, one of my favorite jazz pianists, perform at his regular spot in New York’s Village Corner. On at least a half-dozen occasions I had enjoyed his swinging style and absolute mastery of the keyboard, so I was not about to change my plans. But I could not report on the event because it was not a new experience.

    Then it dawned on me: While his music was not new to me, his personal life was. I would interview him between his sets, and if he declined to be interviewed I would write about his refusal and how it made me feel. I couldn’t go wrong. I remember listening to his set in complete anxiety, wondering how I would approach this musical genius, doubting I had the courage to even ask him for an interview, and feeling upset for not having planned the questions to ask him if he did grant the interview.

    Long story short, I did ask him, he agreed, and I totally bombed as the interviewer. I did learn where he was born (Bermuda), how long he lived in America (“seven years”), for how long he was blind (“for as long as I remember”), and why he turned to jazz (“I didn’t turn to jazz; I turned to music”). But I mostly stammered, hiccupped, and blundered through those eternal five minutes, ending the conversation at the bar as uneasily and abruptly as I had begun it. I was so embarrassed that I left the Village Corner before he began his next set.

    I went home and wrote an honest account of how a tongue-tied novice interviewer failed at this task at uncovering the life of someone he idolized but still succeeded at keeping alive for himself the mystery of the interviewee’s musicianship. My professor gave me an A on the report. He wrote, “You wisely refrained from dwelling on Hayward’s answers to your trite questions, but you described your passion—if not his—for a music that is always a new experience for you, which is what jazz is.”

    Wow. In other words, my professor was telling me that a mediocre writer’s mediocre account of a mediocre experience could still unearth something new, something worthwhile, something memorable. And here I tell the story thirty-seven years later.

    And I tell the story as reminder to do something new, something outside your comfort zone, to have something interesting to say. It could be an interview of a 92-year-old neighbor, a description of a remote corner in a community park, a reaction to a library shelf that you have never explored—it doesn’t matter, as long as it is new. You’ll see what happens: your fingers will not keep up with the images your brain evokes as you try to capture the experience. Your creativity will explode.

    Saturday, December 11, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 2: Oppose Yourself

    Writers tend to have strong convictions. They feel strongly about an issue and write tirelessly about it, pouring their every emotion and baring their soul until they reveal the heart of the matter at hand in its simplest, profoundest truth.

    This is not always a good thing. Such a mindset can be the culprit of an intellectual tunnel vision that shuts out contradictory evidence and opposing viewpoints from sources equally credible as the ones supporting their opinion. Worse, writing from the same perspective can cause a boredom that stifles creativity.

    As a way of keeping the creative fire burning, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, think from the perspective of your nemeses. If you are a die-hard Democrat, then imagine what life must be like for Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. If you dislike baseball, reflect on the life of a spouse or child of a major league player. If you cannot fathom a life without literature, consider how a typical day would go for one of the millions of people in the world who cannot read. If you hate Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, or Skinheads, pretend that one of their members is your beloved brother or daughter. After all, no one—not Adolf Hitler, not Idi Amin Dada, not Osama bin Laden—thinks he is engaged in doing wrong; he thinks he is right or at least is more than justified for doing wrong. Get into those heads, take something interesting from them, and use it as a springboard for a new essay or story.

    This is the kind of thinking that led to making Michael Corleone in The Godfather such a compelling character. He is not just a ruthless, vengeful, power-mongering murderer; he is also a family man devoted to his family and friends—just like the best of us. Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is not merely a sadistic serial killer; he is a charming, cultured, intellectual gentleman—the sort of man we would welcome into our home.

    You can oppose yourself by resisting knee-jerk-response prose quite easily. Suppose your anti-abortion stance makes you so frustrated with abortion clinics. Walk a metaphorical mile in the shoes of an abortion activist, not necessarily as she is politicking for abortion rights, but as she walks her son to school or cooks up a terrific Thanksgiving supper for dear friends. Those are the contradictions that create dramatic tension and mesmerizing narratives.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 1: Never Stop Working

    I want to end this year with a collection of tips to spur writing creativity. Writers never have a day off because they write from experience and they are always experiencing—even dreaming when they sleep. So let’s start with those sleeping and idle hours.

    Tip 1: Keep a recording device with you at all times. Pen and paper, a mini tape recorder, or a smartphone will do. I use an old fashioned 200-page, 9 ¾" X 7 ½" lined, stitched notebook. You’ll never know when a good idea will hit you. In fact, creative people will say that from periods of deep relaxation come their greatest eureka moments, so all times means all times and all places—the bedside, the restaurant, the car, the beach, whenever and wherever.

    Tapping into your creative mind does not mean straining to think; it just means writing down what you’re thinking about. No idea is insignificant. Comments you hear in passing while waiting in line at the bank, during phone conversations, while listening television commentators, and especially when reading are all fair game. So are the sights you see, from an elevator floor to the deep woods, as are the sounds you hear, the odors you smell, and the flavors you taste. Some of what you experience every day will show up in your next article, story, or play. Record them.

    Sunday, December 05, 2010

    AMA Webinar Another Success

    The American Management Association ran my popular webinar, How to Write a Darn Good E-mail, once again on December 3, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Other scheduled dates are January 4 and March 31. The program focuses on the following points:

    • Get started quickly
    • Write attention-getting subject lines, openings and closings
    • Create clear, concise e-mail that gets results
    • Maintain a professional tone
    • Polish your e-mail to perfection
    • Discover the do’s and don’ts of e-mail

    Signing up for this webinar is easy and inexpensive. The value is there, I assure you—as a thousand others who have tuned in before would tell you.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Friday, December 03, 2010

    Reverso a Helpful Website

    I ran into another useful site: Reverso, a free translation, grammar, conjugation, dictionary, and thesaurus service. The site comes courtesy of Softissimo, a French-based publisher of linguistic technologies and multilingual solutions for corporations, governments, and consumers. It is easy to use and rich with practical advice. It’s definitely worth a look:

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    Voice, Part 11: Changing Active to Passive

    In this final post of the active-passive voice series, I’ll turn to how to change active voice to passive voice.

    In the November 1 post, I gave three reasons for preferring passive voice. If you find yourself in one of those situations, simply focus on the people or things that are acted upon by making them the subjects of the sentence. Examples:

    Active: The fire department is extinguishing the fire.
    Passive: The fire is being extinguished.

    Active: The lab technician examined the specimen.
    Passive: The specimen was examined.

    Active: Fred might make a mistake.
    Passive: A mistake might be made.

    The bottom line: Know the difference between passive and active, know when using one is better than using the other, and know how to transpose sentences either way. I wish you good luck—or good luck is wished to you.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    Voice, Part 10: Changing Passive to Active, Method 5

    A final way of changing passive to active voice is to simply delete the passive verb. While you will not always be able to use this method, you should be on the lookout for such opportunities. Examples:

    Passive: You are advised that you owe JoJo Management, Inc. $1,200 in rent.
    Active: You owe JoJo Management, Inc. $1,200 in rent.

    Passive: It was brought to my attention that you are submitting your reports late.
    Active: You are submitting your reports late.

    Passive: You are requested to direct your comments to
    Active: Please direct your comments to

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Voice, Part 9: Changing Passive to Active, Method 4

    You can also change passive to active voice by making the passive verb an adjective. Examples:

    Passive: We will speak with the team that has been deployed.
    Active: We will speak with the deployed team.

    Passive: Farah has been trained as a researcher.
    Active: Farah is a trained researcher.

    Passive: The company allows travel to that country only for staff who have been vaccinated.
    Active: The company allows travel to that country only for vaccinated staff.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    Voice, Part 8: Changing Passive to Active, Method 3

    A third way of changing passive to active voice is to make the passive verb a noun:

    Passive: You will be interviewed tomorrow.
    Active: Your interview occurs tomorrow.

    Passive: The way people are treated is the way that they might treat others.
    Active: The treatment people receive dictates the treatment they might give.

    Passive: Our division will be audited tomorrow.
    Active: Our division audit is tomorrow.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Voice, Part 7: Changing Passive to Active, Method 2

    The first method for changing passive to active voice creates a change of subject:

    The film was given good reviews. (The subject is film.)
    The critics gave the film good reviews. (The subject is now critics.)

    Another way to change passive voice to active is to change the verb instead of the subject:

    The film received good reviews.

    This method is more challenging because it requires the writer to concoct a different word. It is the choice of fluent technical writers, who often give human characteristics to inanimate objects to keep an active style. Examples:

    The smartphone communicates throughout the continent.
    This document describes the protocol of the Rebop7 System.
    The assembly requires a licensed technician.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Voice, Part 6: Changing Passive to Active, Method 1

    You have several ways of changing a passive construction to an active one. The first and most common method is to place the doer before the action. Examples:

    Passive: Pratash was rewarded by Microsoft for his exceptional service.

    Active: Microsoft rewarded Pratash for his exceptional service.

    Passive: Jason was called during the night. (Here the doer is hidden.)

    Active: Jason’s manager called him during the night. (The doer is now revealed.)

    Monday, November 08, 2010

    Voice, Part 5: When Active Voice Works

    If, as I noted in the previous post, passive voice has a place in excellent writing, then when is active voice preferable? Three main considerations often stand out: conciseness, clarity, and fluency.

    1. Conciseness. In the example below, active voice achieves greater economy.

    Passive: It was noted by Caroline that security precautions which were created in the Bostick plant will not be followed by the Shelling plant. (24 words)

    Active: Caroline noted that the Shelling plant will not follow the security precautions that the Bostick plant created. (17 words)

    2. Clarity. The next example shows how active voice achieves greater transparency.

    Passive: Although dissent was heard, a decision was made that the operation be terminated.

    Active: Although the production manager dissented, the safety director decided to terminate the operation.

    3. Fluency. In this example, the active is preferable because it sounds more like natural speech.

    Passive: Consideration will be given to candidates to be interviewed if the qualifications are met.

    Active: The company will consider interviewing qualified candidates.

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    Voice, Part 4: When Passive Voice Works

    Passive voice has its merits. Here are three cases when writing in passive voice might improve a sentence.

    1. The doer is obvious to the reader. In the example below, the assumption is that readers know who the doer is, so mentioning the doer is unnecessary.

    Active: The law requires you to obey the speed limit.

    Passive: You are required to obey the speed limit.

    2. The doer is unimportant. In this next example, the readers care more about the resolving the sanitation problem that who resolved it:

    Active: The janitor emptied the trash.

    Passive: The trash was emptied.

    3. The doer should be spared recognition. This final example clearly illustrates how passive voice shows greater respect to the errant employee:

    Active: Hector made a mistake in the proposal.

    Passive: A mistake was made in the proposal.

    Understanding when to use active and passive voice will endow the writer with an invaluable tool for expressing ideas.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Voice, Part 3: Distinguishing Passive from Active Voice

    When determining whether a sentence is active or passive, look for the association between the subject and verb. Start by looking for the action. In the sentence below, the action is bought, and the subject, Ms. Barnes, performed the action. When the subject of the sentence performs the action, the sentence is active.

    Ms. Barnes bought the store last week.

    In this next sentence, the action is was brought, and the subject, store, is acted upon. When the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action, the sentence is passive.

    The store was bought last week.

    Passive voice uses the verb to be (e.g., am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) and a part participle verb. Examples:

    I am updated weekly by my supervisor on the project.

    The buildings are monitored for safety.

    Alexandra’s performance is reviewed by her manager.

    Ben was told that he can begin the project.
    They were alerted of the situation.

    You will be invited to attend the meeting.

    Carrie enjoys being given opportunities to brief management.

    Donald has been sold the property.

    As you can see, passive voice, as well as active voice, can appear in past, present, or future situations, so it is a mistake to think that passive voice means past tense.

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Voice, Part 2: Passive Voice Can Be Good or Bad

    The previous post showed how passive voice could be an improvement over active voice in certain situations. While in some instances passive is more concise than active, it generally is not as the examples below demonstrate.

    Passive: The case was reviewed by the judge. (7 words)
    Active: The judge reviewed the case. (5 words)

    Passive: The hotel was designed by a renowned architect, and it is managed by an experienced team. (16 words)
    Active: A renowned architect designed the hotel, and an experienced team manages it. (12 words)

    In rare cases, passive is clearer, but active is lucid more often because the doers of the action are apparent, as in the examples below.

    Passive: The usability test was conducted, but the report was not completed.
    Active: R&D conducted the usability test but has not completed the report.

    Passive: The check will be mailed when the invoice is received.
    Active: I will mail the check when I receive the invoice.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Voice, Part 1: Active Is Not Necessarily Better Than Passive

    Too often, I hear that active voice is superior to passive voice. The truth is, however, active is not necessarily stronger, clearer, economical, or better than passive.

    In this situation, the passive sentence is stronger.

    • Active: Would you please give this book to your manager.
    • Passive: This book must be given to your manager.

    In the next pair, the passive sentence is clearer.

    • Active: The data will undergo an examination.
    • Passive: The data will be examined by the analyst.

    In the example below, the passive sentence is more economical.

    • Active: Carmen, Charlie, Nick, and Victor reviewed the document. (8 words)
    • Passive: The document was reviewed. (4 words)

    Finally, the passive sentence below is better than the active for all the above reasons: it is stronger, clearer, and briefer. The passive sentence immediately focuses on the safety issue, while the active sentence is clunky and wishy-washy.

    • Active: We assume that someone in Engineering will attempt to correct the problem with the relief valve before one of the production team staff members places the compressor in production.
    • Passive: The problem with the relief valve must be corrected before the compressor is placed in production.

    I will continue this series on voice in subsequent posts.

    Monday, October 04, 2010

    Myth-busting about Education and Technology

    If you believe, as I do, that when it comes to learning, adults are children in big bodies, then you might find helpful a recently published report by Walden University. The report,

    Educators, Technology and 21st Century Skills: Dispelling Five Myths—A Study on the Connection Between K–12 Technology Use and 21st Century Skills, claims that the more K–12 teachers use technology, the more they value its strong positive effects on student learning and engagement and its connection to 21st century skills.

    The myths, related to teacher preparedness and student engagement, are only the beginning of the report. The implications of Dispelling Five Myths are far-reaching across the curriculum and most contemporary education themes, such as global awareness, entrepreneurial literacy, and health literacy. The report concludes with 12 specific recommendations for teachers, administrators, postsecondary educators, and legislators form all levels of government. It also lists excellent technology-related resources.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Should I Call or E-mail?

    After a recent e-mail webinar, I received a question from Tom Mello of Liberty Mutual Insurance Co in Boston, Massachusetts, about striking a balance between using e-mail and the phone. My response, in part, appears below.

    The question of phone vs. e-mail will always come down to the relationship between the sender and receiver. For instance, most of my clients return my phone calls with e-mails. I infer from their choice that I should reply in kind. Some clients have not spoken on the phone with me in years. Our only means of communication, except for face to face, is by e-mail. My attitude about this situation is simple: They’re the boss, so they dictate the rules of engagement.

    Here are three points I keep in mind when selecting the means of communication:
    1. Respond to my audience in the mode they initiated.
    2. Initiate by e-mail when I need a record.
    3. Initiate by phone when dealing with a complex or urgent issue that could be resolved quicker by phone.

    Thanks, Mr. Mello, for having the wisdom and confidence to ask a question that occurs at work to most people without their resolving it. I welcome all questions on writing at WORDS ON THE LINE.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Reprise: "How to Write a Darn Good Email" on September 21

    For the seventh time, the American Management Association will run my webinar How to Write a Darn Good Email tomorrow, September 21, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The program provides tips on getting to the point, setting the right tone, and organizing complex emails. There also will be plenty of time to have your questions about email composition and management answered.

    It's not too late to sign up for this reasonably priced webinar. Here's the information and registration link:

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 7: Best Practices

    I close this brief series on ESL issues with three recommendations:

    1. Listen closely to professional speakers. Many of those on TV and radio are excellent, but listening on the Internet affords the opportunity of easy pausing and playing back as needed.
    2. Read eclectically. Of course, you should read in your field, including work documents and professional journal articles, but read outside your field too. Quality daily newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, fiction and nonfiction books, and even a few books on writing should be in your routine reading regimen. I hesitate to recommend specific publications because virtually all will help. If you really want specific reading suggestions, write me an e-mail ( describing your reading interests, and I’ll respond with recommendations—promise!
    3. Review online ESL resources. This is easy enough. Type “ESL resources” in your favorite search engine to find an endless supply of tips, quizzes, and references to keep you busy for a long time.

    Books by Philip Vassallo
    How to Write Fast Under Pressure
    The Art of E-mail Writing
    The Art of On-the-Job Writing
    The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

    Monday, September 06, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 6: Idioms

    English has thousands of idioms. I frequently hear from ESL learners that they enjoy learning idioms because using them appropriately demonstrates a great facility with the language. An important issue for writing at work is knowing which idioms would seem acceptable in e-mail. Would it be preferable to write:
    • “I get it” or “I understand”? I prefer the more formal “I understand.”
    • “Let’s talk it over” or “Let’s discuss it”? I have no preference.
    • “I didn’t get around to it” or “I did not have time to do it”? I don’t like either, preferring a more positive, “I needed more time.”
    • “I changed my mind” or “I reversed my opinion”? I prefer the idiom “I changed my mind.”

    Two sites, and offer good lists of idioms, yet the best way to master them is to read diversely and abundantly and listen carefully to respected communicators.

    Books by Philip Vassallo
    How to Write Fast Under Pressure
    The Art of E-mail Writing
    The Art of On-the-Job Writing
    The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

    Monday, August 30, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 5: Uncountable Nouns

    In an earlier post on uncountable nouns, I mentioned 20 nouns which, in the context I used them, should be used singularly. But here’s the problem: Some of them can be used as plurals.

    Most of the examples are true to the rule; words like advice, equipment, information, knowledge, and traffic are singular although they suggest plurals. On the other hand, let’s take a look at five others that can be singular depending on the context in which they are used:
    1. The air is better today. But if I think you’re trying too hard to impress me, I may say, “You’re putting on airs.”
    2. Her art never fails to impress us. But I am likely to say that an actor, a dancer, a musician, a playwright, and a sculptor are in the arts.
    3. The coffee from Brazil and Colombia is famous. But when I order two cups of coffee for my friend and myself, I may say to the waiter, “Two coffees, please.”
    4. The water in my town and yours tastes great. But I may warn you about entering a hostile nation’s territorial waters.
    5. Their work is exceptional. But I may say that I’m reading the collected works of a poet.

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 4: Prepositions

    Prepositions are hard for ESL learners for at least four reasons:
    1. Prepositions such as from, of, in, and on have so many meanings—senses might be a better word—more than the best dictionary is likely to cover.
    2. Native speakers even disagree on the use of some prepositions. For instance, a lot of New Yorkers wait on line, while the rest of the country waits in line. Some people prefer to be called on a telephone number, while most others favor being called at a number.
    3. Some preposition usage just makes no sense. We’ll say we’re in the car but on the bus or on the train.
    4. Prepositions don’t translate well from one language to another. For example, the Spanish de can mean of or from, and its en can mean in or on based the context in which it is used, while English speakers like to distinguish between these word pairs.

    What’s the solution to the preposition conundrum for ESL learners? The same as the one for the article, which I write about in the last post: Read a lot of high-quality, current writing (reading aloud will help even more), and get as much writing feedback from coworkers as you can.

    Books by Philip Vassallo
    How to Write Fast Under Pressure
    The Art of E-mail Writing
    The Art of On-the-Job Writing
    The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 3: Articles

    Articles (a, an, and the) are especially tricky for nonnative speakers who do not have the article in their first language, such as Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Polish. It would be easy for them to memorize the many rules for the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an), but the number of exceptions exceed the rules themselves. For instance:
    • We don’t usually use the with proper nouns like Yankee Stadium, but we do use the if those proper nouns are sports teams, as in the Yankees.
    • We avoid the to refer to proper nouns of universities like New York University, but we do say the if the first word is university, as in the University of Michigan.
    • We won’t use the for proper nouns like Penn Station or Grand Central Station, but we feel equally comfortable saying, “I’ll meet you at the 59th Street Station” and “I’ll meet you at 59th Street Station.”
    • We say the United States and the USA; however, we say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and either the MTA or just MTA.
    • People from England and Australia feel it’s fine to say, I’m going to university, or I’m going to hospital, but those expressions sound strange to Americans, who want the to precede university and hospital.
    All of this may sound funny to native English speakers, but it is linguistic torture for nonnative speakers trying to write in a natural English (or American) style. Therefore, after studying the rules for the article, ESL learners need to read a lot in English, especially current writing, to get the nuances of the article. They should also ask their native speaking coworkers to critique their use of the article. These techniques will help them see improvement quickly.

    Monday, August 09, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 2: Linking Verbs

    Most people will say that a verb is an action word. Not always. We also have state-of-being verbs, such as the verb to be (e.g., am, are, is, was, were, be, have been). These verbs tend to link two words in a sentence. So when we say, “I am hungry,” we mean that I am in a state of hunger, or I and hunger are one in the same.

    Knowing linking verbs is important because we use adjectives to link with them, whereas action verbs are modified by adverbs. Examples:

    • Linking verb with an adjective complement: I am hungry.
    • Action verb with an adverb as a modifier: I ate hungrily.

    Other linking verbs include certain sense words (look, sound, smell, feel, taste), but sometimes they are action verbs. Examples:

    • Linking Verb: You looked happy yesterday.
    • Action Verb: You looked happily at the sunrise.
    • Linking Verb: He sounded powerful to me.
    • Action Verb: He sounded the trumpet powerfully.
    • Linking Verb: After emerging from the smoke, we smelled bad.
    • Action Verb: He smells badly enough to fail the scent discrimination test.
    • Linking Verb: They felt wary.
    • Action Verb: They felt their way warily through the dark tunnel.
    • Linking Verb: Her drink tastes bitter.
    • Action Verb: She tasted the drink bitterly.
    Still other linking verbs exist, such as appear, become, get, grow, keep, lie, prove, remain, seem, stay, and turn—all requiring adjective complements.

    Monday, August 02, 2010

    An ESL Guide, Part 1: Past Tense

    Many of the participants in my writing classes were not born into the English language; in other words, they are ESL learners. The term ESL (English as a Second Language) is inaccurate, as many people can communicate in more than one language besides English; however, I will use ESL here because it is commonly used and not meant pejoratively.

    I am always amazed at how people like my parents have the courage to come to the United States with limited English proficiency and only basic formal education or professional training. Seeing bleak economic prospects in their native country, they look to America as a chance to make a living and provide greater opportunity for their family. My parents arrived in New York with not as much hope for themselves as with dreams for their children’s future.

    But this picture does not accurately portray the vast majority of ESL participants in my writing classes. Most are highly educated, diversely skilled, and multilingual. Many are PhDs, professional engineers, registered architects, certified public accountants, and medical doctors. Yet they might have learned English recently, or they learned it earlier without having to use it professionally. They would be the first to say that English must be their first language in the workplace and that they cannot rise to higher levels in their organization without a strong command of spoken and written English. To these respectful, talented, diligent souls, I dedicate this seven-part series on ESL writing issues, starting with this post on verb tense.

    The past tense is a common error that pops up for ESL writers. Errors like the following ones are common:

    Incorrect: We were advise by the client.
    Correct: We were advised by the client.

    The past participle form of the verb is needed when using the passive voice (i.e., the verb to be and a past
    participle form to make the verb, as in am recommended, are chosen, is concluded, was spoken, were
    , and be known).

    Incorrect: She has master her work.
    Correct: She has mastered her work.

    Helping verbs, or perfect tense verbs, (i.e., have, has, and had) require the accompanying verb to be in the past participle form.

    Incorrect: You need a sign contract.
    Correct: You need a signed contract.

    Adjective forms of verbs need the past participle form, so the employee I choose becomes the chosen employee, the book you recommend becomes the recommended book, and the task she completes
    becomes the completed task.

    The error is understandable for those who learn English by listening because nearly all native speakers do not enunciate those past tense endings without the extra syllable while they do enunciate past tense endings with the extra syllable. Here’s a test for native speakers. In your normal speaking voice, say these two sentences:

    Barbara has noticed your excellent work on the Hill project.
    Barbara has recommended you for the Mountain project.

    You’ll observe that you hardly pronounce the past tense, noticed, in the first sentence because it lacks an extra syllable, but you do pronounce the past tense, recommended, in the second sentence because it does have an extra syllable. Therefore, those who are learning English are likely working with audio cues when writing these forms. They will get recommended right but noticed wrong, writing notice instead, because they do not hear it when spoken.

    Monday, July 26, 2010

    The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 5: Vigor

    To be or not to be: that is the question. – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

    I begin this final post on the virtues of reading aloud with the first line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy to refute those rhetoricians who claim that use of the verb to be lacks clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor. Hamlet is equating his decision to act or not to act with whether he chooses to exist or not exist. Clear, concise, graceful, and powerful it is—no doubt about it.

    But these rhetoricians have a point. Too often, we use the verb to be when a more powerful verb would serve the situation better. Here are two examples of sentences lacking vigor because of an overabundance of to be:

    The point is that the president is not being amenable to being on the committee.

    There are times when it is necessary for being assertive about what it is you are saying.

    Once again, reading aloud would have picked up the dreadfully weak style of those sentences. A straightforward approach to editing would eliminate all to be verbs from each sentence (four in the first and five in the second):

    The president does not want to serve on the committee.

    Sometimes you need to speak assertively.

    Read your sentences aloud to promote powerful, fluent writing!

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Thursday, July 22, 2010

    The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 4: Grace

    When I talk about earning grace, I’m not making any biblical allusion, but I am referring to a writing attribute that most people find difficult attaining in their first draft. Professor Joseph M. Williams uses the word grace in the subtitle of his book Style, which I reviewed in an earlier WORDS ON THE LINE post. First-draft thinking often looks like this:

    A worst-case scenario, which we would want to avoid to ensure that we meet the deadline since our proposal will not be accepted after the due date, would require that the manager to whom we assigned the project work overtime.

    The awkwardness in this sentence comes from at least three problems:

    • The 24-word distance between the subject worst-case scenario and verb would require. I have said a few times in this blog and in my book The Art of E-mail Writing that readers need to connect subjects and verbs closely.
    • The circular, repetitive thinking behind to ensure that we meet the deadline since our proposal will not be accepted after the due date.
    • The awkwardness of to whom, which we should avoid whenever possible.

    Reading aloud would have detected these issues and prompted a rewrite like the one below:

    A worst-case scenario would require the assigned project manager to work overtime, but falling behind schedule would jeopardize submitting our proposal by the due date.

    Read your sentences aloud to create a graceful style.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Saturday, July 17, 2010

    The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 3: Conciseness

    If you’ve been e-mailing at work for a while, then you’ve surely seen writing like this:

    I am writing to tell you that I spoke to Paula during the Quality Assurance meeting that we held today, and she told me to tell you that starting at this point and going forward we will be going with Plan B.

    Only 12 of those 42 words have any value for the reader. Think about it:

    • The first three words, I am writing, are unnecessary for a person reading in this context.
    • The next four words, to tell you that, are just as useless.
    • The next four words, I spoke to Paula, are equally unneeded once the writer says what Paula said.
    • The clause she told me to tell you is repetitive.
    • The seven words starting at this point and going forward are a bit much for starting now.

    If the writer had read aloud that sentence, he would have picked up at least some of these issues and gotten to the important point. The 12-word version below says it all:

    During today’s Quality Assurance meeting, Paula said to start using Plan B.

    Read your sentences aloud to hear the repeated and unnecessary words!

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    The Virtues of Reading Your Writing Aloud, Part 2: Clarity

    Get a load of this sentence:

    If the room is locked at any time outside of usual business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, closed on Sunday), you can call Security at extension 711, or Housekeeping Services can be called during business hours if Security is busy.

    Twisted phrasing, useless words, and weak organization occur everywhere in this sentence. Reading the sentence aloud would help you pick up the following six clarity problems:

    • Wasted words – The words at any time, of, usual, closed on Sunday, you can, are unnecessary.
    • Long parenthetical passage – The listing of the business hours interrupts the primary thought, which is whom to call if you find the door locked.
    • Formatting of business hours – Those varied business hours need to be listed vertically for easy reference, not horizontally, which causes muddled thinking.
    • Confusing mix of active and passive voice – Shifting between passive and active voice is not always a bad idea, but in this case breaking from you can call to can be called is arbitrary, puzzling, and awkward.
    • Nonparallel organization of ideas – The organization of ideas is inconsistent and unclear. Starting with the condition if the room is locked, the sentence moves to that clunky definition of the business hours, to the contingency you can call. But then the second situation is reversed, from the contingency, call Housekeeping, to the condition, if Security is busy.
    • Incomplete idea – The idea if Security is busy means if you get a busy signal when calling Security. As written, readers might think the clause means to call Housekeeping if Security answers the call by saying, “We are busy right now.”

    A read-aloud of that sentence followed by a simple reinterpretation of the sentence might have led to this improved second draft:

    If the room is locked before or after business hours, call Security at X 711. If you get a busy signal from Security during business hours, call Housekeeping at X 739. Our business hours are as follows:

    • 8 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
    • 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday
    • 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday

    Remember: Read your sentences aloud to remedy unclear thinking!