Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six Websites to Immediately Bookmark and Continually Check

As this post is my last of 2011, I am recommending six websites, in no particular order, which are designed to educate, entertain, and inspire. They have achieved these objectives for me, so I hope you find them just as helpful. Some have appeared on this blog before, but they are worth a second or third notice.

 FORAtv provides live and recorded lectures, interviews, debates, and panels on business, environment, politics, science, technology, and culture from leading thinkers around the world. Founded in San Francisco in 2005, FORAtv boasts a stunning range of content partners and syndication partners

TED (Technology, Education, Design) has as its tagline "Ideas Worth Spreading." It started in 1984 and now broadcasts talks by world renowned speakers on diverse topics. TED features two annual conferences, the TEDTalks video site, TED fellowships, and the annual TED Prize.

Learn Out Loud is an audio book and podcast site devoted to languages, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, science, technology, and travel, among others topics. Most of the content comes with a cost, but its ever-expanding database of free readings, lectures, webcasts, and webinars are worth downloading onto your smartphone or listening to by streaming. Several of these are semester length for those seeking in-depth content.

Big Think offers a seemingly endless array of blogs, articles, and videos on topics of global and urgent interest from the most influential academics, literati, and politicos on the scene today. Check out the site's Idea Feed for ground-breaking spins on breaking news based on three principles: significance (How will this idea change the world and impact your life?), relevance (What groups and individuals does this idea most affect?), and application (How can this idea change the way you think or act?) 

Academic Earth contains courses and lectures by professors from Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and other major universities on virtually every major subject area you're likely to find in higher education. Some recent topics: literary theory, stock market simulation, the development of thought, and Paul's ministry. 

 Do Lectures founded in 2005 by David & Clare Hieatt and based in Wales, has as it premise, in its own words, "people who Do things can inspire the rest of us to go and Do things, too. So each year we invite a set of people down here to come and tell us what they Do. They can be small Do’s or big Do’s or just extraordinary Do’s. But when you listen to their stories, they light a fire in your belly to go and Do your thing, your passion, the thing that sits in the back of your head each day, just waiting, and waiting for you to follow your heart."

Here's to a 2012 of good health, self-realizing success, and important work at the service of others.

Friday, December 23, 2011

When in Doubt Leave It Out? I Think Not!

The old journalism maxim, "When in doubt leave it out," might work well in reporting news, but it might be counterproductive to principles of writing fast under pressure. Fair-minded reporters would not want to slander their subjects or jeopardize their reputation by writing statements they cannot verify, so they would do well to strike such thoughts from their news stories.

As a tip for writing fast under intense deadlines, however, the adage is not as useful. The idea of composing quickly is based on creativity, not criticism, so writers who are planning and producing that first draft should take a no-holds-barred approach. Say as you're writing the first draft of a proposal for upper management, a compelling but unsubstantiated idea pops into your head. Why leave it out so early in the writing process? Write it down and flag it as a point for confirmation. Why risk deleting and forgetting it now when it can potentially lead to other great ideas to support your message? You can always strike it later if need be.

How to Write Fast Under Pressure examines this and numerous other tips for the business and technical writer. It is available in print and electronic formats.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Points about Speaking and Listening from a Master Communicator

Mortimer J. Adler's How to Speak How to Listen makes several instructive points for the practical person seeking a theoretical framework as well as the novice professional speaker and meeting participant. These suggestions also connect well to writing at work.

Adler suggests an order for introducing into a presentation Aristotle's time-tested tripartite of persuasion as follows: ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic). In addition, he examines two indispensable considerations of speech preparation, once again borrowing from Greek: taxis (the structure) and lexis (the language).

Some of his observations are memorable:
  • "Always risk talking over (your audience's) heads."
  • "Truly great books ... are the few books that are over everybody's head all of the time."
  • In speeches, "On the one hand, the language employed and the sentences constructed should be clear without being plain. On the other hand, they should have a certain elevation above the ordinary without being obscure."
  • "The most prevalent mistake that people make about both listening and reading is to regard them as passively receiving rather than actively participating."
  • "To disagree before you understand is impertinent. To agree is inane."

Friday, December 09, 2011

Reading and Writing: Two Activities of Endless Delight

The coffee cup is empty, but the reading never ends.
 I remember baseball player Pete Rose, in the midst of his legendary National League record 44-game hitting streak, saying, "I'm not the fastest runner and I don't have the strongest arms, but by legs and my arms are my greatest assets."

That's the way I feel about my reading and writing abilities. I may not be the fastest reader or the most skilled writer, but I am forever grateful for those skills, which have been not only my livelihood but my means of better understanding the world and deepening my perspective on the purpose of existence.

I wake up an hour earlier than I have to for the privilege and pleasure of reading the book of the day. I'm one of those people who read six or so books at a time. While I'm at it, I keep nearby my notebook, the low-tech type, to list observations about my reading, to jot notes on a program I'm designing for a client, to capture an otherwise fleeting creative idea, or just to document recent experiences.

Taking a break from note taking.

I read and write with my daily cup of coffee or occasional  glass of wine, on the beach or in bed, in silence or with background music, or whenever, wherever, and however I can. Sometimes I erupt into a euphoric state just because I have the gift of reading and writing. If you feel the same, count yourself lucky; if you don't, think of all there is to learn.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 12: Self-renewal

Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC) photo by Eric Gaba
“Examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and life without this sort of examination is not worth living.” (Socrates in Plato’s Apology, 38a)

In the spirit of Socrates’s observation on the eve of his execution, I continually renew myself as a writer, teacher, and assessor by answering seven questions with specific responses in the general areas of myself, my field, and my clients. Each question begins: What have I done lately to …
  1. deepen my subject-matter knowledge?
  2. improve my teaching skills?
  3. cultivate my own writing?
  4. improve in my teaching tips?
  5. contribute ideas to the fields of writing, teaching, and learning?
  6. help people develop their writing?
  7. reaffirm my commitment to writing, teaching, and assessing?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 11: Self-development

Teachers need to learn and trainers need training to expand their knowledge and to cultivate their skills. The more I learn, the more I bring to my educational situations as a consultant, writer, trainer, coach, and teacher. Therefore I have two full-time jobs: teaching and learning. I structure my learning opportunities eclectically and by diverse means.

DomainsThe areas in which I continually seek learning areas fall into seven broad areas:
  • Training – topics, trends, and innovations in the training and consulting business. This area has kept me on top of new approaches to virtual and asynchronous deliveries as well as coaching, classroom training, and webinars.
  • Client – the concerns, endeavors, and practices of the industries and disciplines of my clients. Working with project managers has led me to read about the critical path method, with scientists to review clinical research, and with humanitarian professionals to study global efforts to reduce poverty, promote gender equality, and lead peacekeeping efforts.
  • Discipline – theory and practice on the art of writing. Regardless of how much I write about writing and teach writing, I discover new theories and approaches to instruction.
  • Academia – fields that have applications to the writing discipline. Learning from writing-across-the-curriculum research, science, history, literature, journalism, philosophy, and the arts provides plenty of new ideas that I can connect to my clients’ writing needs.
  • Business – topics of business leadership, management, marketing, investment, and real estate. These areas are all a part of the complex web of fields that directly affect my clients.
  • News – world and national, and local governmental, political, cultural, and sporting events. Being informed of world affairs affords me a deep reservoir of timely cultural references.
  • Electives – my own non-business interests. Lately, these have included the topics of creativity, linguistics, neurology, theology, and yoga.
I learn whatever I can from reading books and articles; attending lectures, seminars, and webinars; watching videos, documentaries, and feature films; and discussing ideas with students, clients, and friends. Social gatherings are great opportunities to learn, so I always keep a notebook or smartphone nearby to take notes and followup.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 10: Follow-up

Following up with clients about their writing skills is essential in ensuring the integrity of my consulting practice. Here are four ways I follow up:

1. Offer additional coaching. Writing needs change as clients move into new positions that require more technical or managerial writing.

2. Respond to all queries. Current and even former clients write or call with specific questions about grammar, reference books, or websites. I respond to all of them.

3. Address their issues on this blog. Often questions directed to me become the source of a blog post. Those posts seem to be the most popular on WORDS ON THE LINE.

4. Suggest additional courses. Many of my clients have taken more than one of my courses, and some as many as six in different areas (e.g., grammar, email, business writing, technical writing, executive summary writing, and persuasive writing). I see their improvement with each course they take.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 9: Coaching

Coaching, or one-one-instruction, is a constant part of my consulting. Whether I am working with a junior associate or an executive, I apply these standards to my coaching:


1. Diagnose the issue. Through diagnostic tests (usually several writing samples from the client’s collection and an assignment I create), client interviews and questionnaires, and, if appropriate, feedback from the managers, I learn the client’s writing strengths and needs.

2. Determine the coaching goals. I articulate the coaching objectives based on two sources: my assessment of the diagnostic and the client’s stated desired outcome.

3. Create rich content. I develop content specific to the writing the client does and that addresses the coaching goals.


4. Stick to the plan. While staying flexible to detect other areas of need as they arise during the coaching, I ensure that the goals remain foremost on the coaching agenda.

5. Provide continual feedback. Every piece of writing and every writing observation that the client makes is valuable in the coaching situation. I use it all to tie into the goals and to move the client to the next logical step in the coaching process.

6. Raise the bar. Those next logical steps should spiral toward greater mastery. Repetition for the sake of busy work is unproductive; therefore, successive assignments graduate in complexity and competence level.

7. Assess honestly. I try to keep the assessment positive, but I know my reputation is on the line when I give feedback. I summarize both strengths and weaknesses with each writing activity.


8. Provide a roadmap. Once the coaching concludes, I refer the client to print and electronic resources for continued improvement

9. Check in occasionally. – In fact, the coaching does not conclude; once a client, always a client. I contact former clients periodically to see how their writing is doing and provide guidance for further development.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 8: Leading

In this and the next post, I discuss the difference between training in a group or a one-on-one context. I devote this post to training groups. Let’s start with this point: I train in writing. I train in managerial, leadership, sales, and technical skills only as they relate to the written word; in other words, I do design and deliver courses the following areas:
  • Managerial – executive summary writing, proposal writing, analytical reports
  • Leadership – speech-writing, white papers, business plans
  • Sales – PowerPoint decks, customer service correspondence
  • Technical – blogging, writing root cause reports, writing audit reports, writing procedures
Having made this point, I remain focused on group dynamics when training in onsite or online courses that involve multiple participants. My attitude about working in this context is quite the opposite of a typical college professor (although I have taught in the university context as well), who takes the position that if students fail, that’s their problem. I feel responsible for the learning of people who attend my workshops; if they do not get it, then that’s my problem.

I need to engage all my program participants. A simple way to achieve this goal is keep in mind these ideas: 
  1. Teach a point briefly, give them a practice opportunity, and debrief on the point.
  2. Group participants diversely throughout the workshop so that they all get to learn from each other.
  3. Divide groups for assignments by pair, trio, and quartet. More four could be a crowd and take too much time for learning the teaching point.
  4. Give plenty of writing opportunities, since that’s why they’re in the workshop.
  5. Ask plenty of questions to which you do not know the answer. Speak to their experience so that they can apply the learning point and you can learn something from them.
  6. Expect of them no more than you would expect of yourself. Use realistic timeframes to complete assignments and give assignments that make you work as hard as they do. Do not give them a writing assignment for which you will not give them feedback.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 7: Lecturing

I try to apply these 13 maxims whenever I lecture.
  1. Know thy audience. Address the people before you, not some imagined, idealized group. They are giving their precious time to hear what you have to say; make it worth their while by tailoring your presentation to their concerns.
  2. Respect thy audience. Even if they’re kindergartners, assume they know as much as you—if not more. Be grateful they’re there and remember that you’re there to serve them.
  3. Address a central issue. Avoid taking on the universe in the brief time allotted. Tell the audience the question you will answer or the issue you will address.
  4. Map the lecture. Let the audience know upfront where the lecture is heading. Give a brief overview.
  5. Keep it brief. Hit the supporting points immediately. People do not want to hear experts drone endlessly as if engaged in a monologue.
  6. Pace yourself. This tip does not contradict the previous one. People need to hear what you say, and some do not efficiently process information they hear. Take your time.
  7. Tell war stories. People enjoy hearing the well-placed illustrative anecdote. Keep it brief and ensure that it drives home a key point.
  8. Use humor. We all appreciate someone who can make us laugh. When appropriate, bring humor into the presentation.
  9. Use visuals. Allow pictures—but not paragraphs—to dramatize or support what you’re saying. Pictures are more memorable than words.
  10. Rely on verifiable facts. Whatever you say, be prepared to cite the source because you will be challenged.
  11. Engage the audience. Let them participate, even letting them become co-lecturers if it makes sense. Look for opportunities to give them individual or team exercises and debrief on all such activities.
  12. Appreciate the silence. If your question to the audience results in a dead silence, wait for a response. Maybe the question is so profound that people need time to reflect on it. Never answer your own question.
  13. Deliver on all promises. If you say, “I’ll speak for five minutes,” then don’t speak for six. If you say, “I will prove that by the end of this lecture,” then prove it. Be your word.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 6: Equipment

These days we write nearly exclusively on computers and smartphones, most often by email. For this reason, I request computers for course participants, as well as a computer with PowerPoint and a projector for myself. I also ask for a flipchart to show examples and highlight points not appearing in the PowerPoint or manual.

Having an internet connection in the facility also proves beneficial so that participants can email their writing assignment to me, and we can then project it to the entire class for review. I also browse helpful websites for writers during the course. Interestingly, those who might at first find such a critique of their work nerve-wracking later say how helpful the experience was.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 5: Materials

When I first became a writing consultant, I worked for someone who encouraged me to use gag handouts, usually malapropisms, spoonerisms, palindromes, anagrams, and other such nonsense. Her theory (and that of many trainers) was that course participants want—no, need—to enjoy themselves to learn. Out came her diagrams showing how by stimulating those fun-loving endorphins, we would spur the learning experience exponentially.

So why do I call such handouts nonsense? Because they are. I keep away from them, as well as silly koosh balls, slinkies, and other toys of the day. I simply do not buy into the theory. I have a great time teaching, and I want people in my courses to enjoy themselves too. But companies pay a lot of money and participants put a lot of their work time into my courses for one reason: to improve their writing skills. So if anything I do detracts from their learning, out from the course it goes. People still have fun in my classes because we consistently seem to find our common sense of humor through looking at the relevant topic discussions and writing activities. Life and the language we use to express our experience are funny enough without wasting times and money on foolish jokes and toys. We’re obsessed by our smartphones as it is—do we need more distractions?

Relevance, interactivity, collaboration, challenge: these are my core four training deliverables. If I give participants these four, then the fifth deliverable, enjoyment, falls naturally into place—even for the greatest of workaholics or loafers. In planning my courses, materials are supreme in enabling me to achieve the core four. I generally use the following course materials:
  • manual – which includes the course outline, resource list, learning points, writing models, and practice activities, all laid out in chronological order
  • book – a related resource that reinforces all the learning points in greater depth
  • articles – essays other authorities or I have published that support the learning
  • job aid – a bookmark listing the key takeaways and my contact points
  • presentation – a PowerPoint deck keeping time of the teaching points and activities by presenting a visual representation of the most important ideas
  • timeline – for my own use only, a minute-by minute, sequential breakdown of the course timing
One more point about materials. Some trainers feel that they should not hand out materials until the point in the course that they’re used. I disagree. The more you give participants, even weeks before the course the more involved they become.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 4: Practicing

An unprepared teacher can’t fool even a kindergartner. Lecturers, professors, actors, or talk show hosts who think they can “call it in” when delivering a presentation will confront a bored, confused, or hostile audience. Even expert presenters need to practice, so I live by these six practice principles:
  • Allow enough practice time. Although I like to prepare for presentations just hours—and even minutes—before delivering them, I allow far more time days before the presentation. I have heard stage directors and actors say that they need one hour of rehearsal time for each minute of the play. Obviously, busy presenters just don’t have that kind of time. I do not keep a time formula for practice, but I do abide by this fundamental premise: Practice until I can do the whole thing by memory.
  • Time the presentation. This tip is critical. Time management problems happen in an instant; therefore, I break down the presentation by topic or activity in blocks of time. I then calculate the entire time and make additions and subtractions to conform to my allotted presentation time.
  • Select audience questions carefully. I want to make these questions challenging enough to engage the audience, easy enough not to intimidate them, and purposeful enough that I can reinforce my points. I practice my responses when getting the answer I want as well as the opposite.
  • Pilot the presentation. Since I am in a one-person business, I rarely get such an opportunity. However, I never pass on it if it is available, and I don’t shy from asking friends or colleagues to sit through at least the part of my presentation where feedback would be helpful. They appreciate my respecting their opinion and never hesitate to tell me what they think I’m doing wrong—and most often they’re right.
  • Visualize the audience. I try to think of myself as an audience. What would I want from the presentation if I need it for my job? If I were attending grudgingly only because my boss required me to? If I were a know-it-all? If I had a political axe to grind? If I were attending with a friend and saw it as an opportunity to socialize? If I were a slow learner? A fast learner? A nonnative speaker just learning the language? Someone fixated on my smartphone? I have had all these sorts in my presentations, so I try to strike a balance that addresses such a mixed bag.
  • Practice for contingencies. These include the projection screen being unavailable, gaining time because the audience moves quicker through the presentation than expected, losing time because of fire drills or tornado evacuations, getting the wrong location or the wrong time, being asked at the last minute to reduce or expand my presentation time, and dealing with disruptive people. All of these and more have happened to me, so I remind myself that I need fillers for expanded time and shortcuts for contracted time.
One final point: Practice is a great way to overcome stage fright. Many a panic-stricken presenter has told me, “I’m glad I practiced; it was the only thing that got me through.”

Sunday, October 02, 2011

How and Why I Teaching Writing, Part 3: Planning

Image by Christopher McCarthy
 A teacher or trainer with a clear and complete plan is likely to succeed. Good planning requires me to think deeply about what students need and how I can help them meet their own goals. My approach to planning is based on winning an OSCAR: objectives, system, content, arrangement, and review—all at the service of my students. [Note: In this post, I make no distinction between the terms “teacher” or “students,” preferred by academics, and the terms “trainer” or “participants,” preferred by businesspeople, because the planning I describe here is imperative and similar in either context.]

Objective – I set goals for students to meet these five criteria:
  • Actionable – The objective must be a do (e.g., write, revise, create), not a know (e.g., learn, understand, know), so that students can prove by example that they have learned.
  • Attainable – The objective should be realistic, one that the students can achieve during the course. Attaining this goal increases the likelihood that they will replicate it back at their office or home.
  • Challenging – The objective should also make students stretch themselves, as writing success comes from hard work. The more challenging the task, the greater the sense of accomplishment.
  • Assessable – The objective needs to be measurable; therefore, the task needs to be specific (e.g., separate ten sentences into three paragraphs in a logical order, each starting with the main point).
  • Applicable – Whatever I teach has to be relevant to why students are there. Since most of my teaching is to corporate employees, I try to use actual examples of student work-related writing samples.
System – Being flexible in the class means being prepared with different ways of teaching a point, even if I don’t need to use those different methods. My system should include a good mix of lecture, class discussion, individual work, and teamwork. Also blended learning comes into play. When feasible, I provide in-class, coaching, and online learning opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, before, during, and after the course.

Content – I choose content not based on what I know but on what my students need to know. This means that I need to profile the learners to the extent that I can. Why are they coming to the class? What do they know? What do they want to learn? How can they use it on the job? Depending on the answers to those questions, I select from my library the most relevant content and research additional useful material.

Arrangement – The material needs to evolve in a way that helps learners build on previous learning. I sequence the course content to help students handle increasingly challenging situations. In general, I teach a point, let them practice, debrief on the point, and transition into a related more complex point.

Review – Activities must include many opportunities for students to practice what they are learning. We learn to write by writing not just by listening and speaking. In planning the course timing, I aim for at least a 50-50 split between lecture/discussion and individual writing/team review assignments. I also allow time for questions about related material that may not be in the course content. If it’s related, I should address it during the class; if it is not, I should address it during the break or after the class. Finally, I reflect on contingencies. If running ahead of schedule because of fewer questions, I reemphasize content through additional practice opportunities; if running behind schedule because of more questions, I determine what content I can de-emphasize without missing a vital teaching point.

With those five guiding principles, OSCAR, I know I will leave nothing out, I will deliver to my audience something of value, and I will address their concerns as the course progresses.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 2: Assessment

Writing assessment involves deep judgment that requires complex thinking and diverse experience. But informed as writing assessment may be, it is human judgment, replete with the assessor's inclinations and biases.
To ensure that my evaluation is as objective as possible in a subjective discipline, I adhere to these principles:
  • Evaluate writing from both formative and summative perspectives. Formative evaluation calls for me to evaluate writers from where they are; summative evaluation calls for me to evaluate the quality of the writing.
  • Evaluate for a standard and consistent skill set. I assess based on four general areas--purposefulness, completeness, organization, and style--each of which encompasses a range of subordinate skills.
  • Use a sensible rubric for assessing writing. A scale of 1 to 10 is not helpful because I know of no one who uses the entire scale. The letter grade system is for the academic world. I use a qualitative assessment that gives the writer a clear signal: strong, needs improvement, etc.  
  • Assess writing over a number of assignments. Let's say writers do poorly on a proposal. Assigning an analytical report or instructional message that the same writers complete successfully may suggest that they are otherwise good writers who are just learning how to write a proposal.
  • Determine what to teach based on the writing assessment. I readily break from my game plan if the writing quality shows that I should. For instance, is the next topic is organization and the writing is showing tone problems, then tone moves into the agenda.
  • Make the assessment positive. Realizing that people build on their weaknesses by using their strengths, I show writers those strengths as building blocks toward improvement.
  • Suggest behaviors that can improve the writer. People learn to write better by writing more, but they also need to read more. I suggest books, articles, and websites to help them improve.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 1: Motivation

People noticing my education level and publication record may say that writing is easier for me than it is for them.

Not true. Writing remains a challenge for me whether I'm working on a book, a course, or an email. Writing is not easy. Sure, some people write better than others, but writing at work is a skill that can be learned. It is a necessary ability for employment and promotion. It is a primary responsibility of most corporate employees, whether they are writing procedures, policies, reports, analyses, or proposals. 

For those reasons and more, I teach writing. In the coming 11 posts, I will explore some writing principles I live by to keep me committed, engaged, and informed as a teacher.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Conditional Mood: Speculative vs. Predictive

In a grammar class, I'm likely to ask, "Why are the following three sentences correct?":
  1. If I knew you needed me, I would have helped.
  2. If I were you, I would apply for the job.
  3. If you have a question, I will answer it.
Notice the if-would combinations for sentences 1 and 2 but the if-will combination for sentence 3.

Most people in my class know the three sentences are grammatically correct but cannot explain why. The usual answer I get is, "Sentence 1 is in the past, sentence 2 is in the present, and sentence 3 is in the future, so we need will for the future." But these sentences have less to do with time, or tense, than they have to do with our state of mind, or mood. Here are the facts:
  1. Sentence 1 cannot be in the past because it never happened (I did not know you needed me).
  2. Sentence 2 is not in the present because it cannot be (I cannot be you).
  3. Sentence 3 is a condition likely to happen in my mind (I will answer your question).
Sentences 1 and 2 have conditions that cannot be met, so we use the speculative if-would combination. The condition in sentence 3 is likely to happen, so we use the predictive if-will combination.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Great Ideas a Must Bookmark

The Great Ideas, led by American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, and their companion The Great Books, offer a solid overview of the major concepts from biology, education, ethics, law, literature, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, politics, psychology, science, and theology. The reading list you'll find there covers the classics of Western literature which have shaped how we learned and what we think. It's an invaluable resource that will keep you occupied for years to come.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Breaking Them

Sure, rules of sentence structure exist. But if all writers follow them slavishly, we would not have sentence fragments like these in well-known books and essays:
  • My birthday a year ago when he had twenty-five nights left to live. (Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking)
  • To return to the convoy about to depart. (Viktor E. Frankl, translated by Ilse Lasch, from Man's Search for Meaning
  • But for what purpose? (Martin Luther King, Jr., from Letter from a Birmingham City Jail)
  • Semitic? Semiotic? Jews and the science of signs? (Walker Percy, from "Why Are You a Catholic?" in Signposts in a Strange Land)
The point? Know the rules first and break them sparingly for dramatic effect.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Pronoun Agreement

The rule used to be that a gender-nonspecific singular noun needed a masculine singular pronoun for agreement. Example:
A reporter must understand his ethical responsibility.
The rule changed to subvert what some construed as a male-dominated mindset.  In 1975, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a position statement, Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language, allowing for this new pronoun:
A reporter must understand his or her ethical responsibility.
So we solved the gender-exclusivity and created a new problem—awkwardness, as seen in the example below:
A reporter must understand his or her ethical responsibility, and if he or she has any doubt about the truth of a story he or she is covering, he or she should consult with his or her editor.
What solutions would the NCTE offer to such awkwardness? For one, make the original noun plural:

Reporters must understand their ethical responsibility, and if they have any doubt about the truth of a story they are covering, they should consult with their editor.
Another solution is to eliminate the disagreeable pronouns altogether:

A reporter must understand the ethical responsibility of the job, and if in doubt about the truth of a story, should consult with the editor.
Easy enough, but the issue continues when employees refer to their organizations:

XYZ, Inc. cares about its employees.
Corporate employees frown upon referring to their company as an it. They remedy the situation in several ways:

XYZ, Inc. cares about their employees. (This solution is grammatically incorrect, but many employees knowledgeable about the rule do not care, as they believe the problem is not theirs but the grammar snobs'.)
XYZ, Inc. management cares about the employees.
At XYZ, Inc., we care about our employees.
The moral? Just as we avoid strange people and places in certain situations, we might want to steer clear of this arbitrary grammar rule.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing for the Web Online Course Ready to Go

I recently completed designing the American Management Association's Writing for the Web course based on its successful classroom version. The course will run four consecutive weeks on the same weekday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. US Eastern time. I will be leading the first two offerings:
  • September 12, 19, 26, October 3 (Mondays)
  • November 28, December 5, 12, and 19 (Mondays)
The program focuses on writing skills needed for creating clear, concise online content, but it also looks closely at search engine optimization, social media platforms, blogging, and websites.

You can register by clicking here.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Monday, August 08, 2011

Three Books, Three Looks at Writing

A frequently asked question I get is, "What are the differences among your books on writing?" Here are my one-sentence answers: 
  • How to Write Fast Under Pressure focuses on techniques for overcoming writer's block and generating ideas by planning creatively, drafting quickly, and rewriting efficiently, whether you are a business or a technical writer.
  • The Art of E-mail Writing concerns writing email at work with special attention to getting to the point, addressing your reader's concerns, organizing your ideas, coming across professionally, and managing your email system.
  • The Art of On-the-Job Writing describes the qualities of the writing product and the steps of the writing process in the natural order that they should emerge to an effective writer in any profession.  
I hope this helps, but if you have further questions, I'm just a post or an email away. 

Books by Philip Vassallo

Monday, August 01, 2011

Connecting the Opening and the Closing

If your written proposals, justifications, and analyses are anything like mine, then your first drafts are weak in the opening and strong in the closing. At first crack, I often lack a solid introductory paragraph, but my conclusion usually summarizes the key issues and highlights what’s at stake for the reader. For instance, I might open a proposal with a weak opening, like so:

This is a proposal for switching to the HearMeNow Smartphone for our project managers.

After crafting a strong case in the body of the message by detailing the nature, causes, and impact of communication problems that project managers experience in the field and by noting options with a comparative analysis, I might conclude with a far superior closing, such as:

HearMeNow clearly is the superior choice because of its diverse business applications, expansive area coverage, unmatched carrier service, and prolonged battery life—all of which are vital for project managers, who are often in the field for up to ten hours in a workday. Approving this proposal for all 11 project managers would result in receiving a deep volume discount of 33 percent for the smartphones and the monthly service.

So my closing is a heavyweight and my opening is a 98-pound weakling. I bring it all home at the end but fail to focus the reader on the significance of the issue upfront, where it really counts.

Not a problem.

All I need to remember is that the opening and closing are powerfully connected. Both places are where the purpose shows up. Maybe I can use something from the closing in the opening. With that thought in mind, here is how I might align them:

Opening: Replacing our project managers’ mobile phones with HearMeNow smartphones would provide them with a more robust, reliable, and economical system for sharing data and accessing the executive offices from remote locations.

Closing: HearMeNow clearly is the superior choice because of its diverse business applications, expansive area coverage, unmatched carrier service, and prolonged battery life. Approving this proposal for all 11 project managers would result in receiving a deep volume discount of 33 percent for the smartphones and the monthly service.
Taking my lead from the closing, I now have an opening that summarizes the business issue and previews the details to follow. As a side benefit, my stronger opening helped me eliminate from the closing two clauses that would have merely repeated what I already said in the body: “all of which are vital for project managers, who are often in the field for up to ten hours in a workday.”

When revising, be sure to align your openings and closings!

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, July 25, 2011

A New Look and a Quick Tour

Those who have loyally checked into WORDS ON THE LINE over the past six-and-a-half years will notice a new look. Blogger by Google has made quite a few formatting improvements to this site, reinforcing my commitment to stick around.

For those of new to the site, you will notice that you can view this blog in multiple ways:

In the Left Column

In the Right Column

  • Search any topic from 412 posts on this blog by writing your keyword in the search box.
  • Learn about me by clicking on my name.
  • Review other links to me, including my website, Twitter, book reviews, and news.
  • Click on any of the labels, or blog topics, sized by frequency of posting
  • Click on posts by date
  • Click on sites that I frequent for information and inspiration

Feel free to link this site to anyone you think would benefit from reading it.
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, July 18, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Splitting an Infinitive

Grammar snobs who have been living in linguistic caves for all too long have an unfounded problem with splitting an infinitive, that is, placing an adverb between the two words that make the root form of the verb (e.g., to play, to sing, to write). Therefore, they find prohibitive writing phrases like to helpfully advise, to cautiously speak, and to happily walk.

The silliness of applying such a rule to every sentence shows up in these examples:
  1. Split Infinitive: We plan to quickly finish this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  2. No Split Infinitive: We plan quickly to finish this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  3. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish quickly this project for the Executive Vice-president.
  4. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish this project quickly for the Executive Vice-president.
  5. No Split Infinitive: We plan to finish this project for the Executive Vice-president quickly.
Few people would prefer Sentence 2 or 3 because of their ambiguity or awkwardness; however, those who favor Sentence 3 or 4 to Sentence 1 have no reasonable semantic or syntactic ground on which to stand. The fact that the adverb is closer to the verb it modifies—the adverb is embedded in the verb—enhances its clarity.
  1. Split Infinitive: She was hoping to efficiently go through the store with her children in tow
  2. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping efficiently to go through the store with her children in tow.
  3. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go efficiently through the store with her children in tow.
  4. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store efficiently with her children in tow.
  5. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store with her children efficiently in tow.
  6. No Split Infinitive: She was hoping to go through the store with her children in tow efficiently.
Sentences 2, 5, and 6 pose clarity problems, but Sentences 3 and 4, which may be favored, are actually not as clear or fluent as the split infinitive.
So what should you do when confronted with a split infinitive during the editing phase? Exactly what I’ve said many times before in this blog: read your sentences aloud for fluency. You’ll figure it out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Sentence Beginnings

Here is another rule that we can do without: Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or or. Some of the best English-language writers begin sentences with conjunctions. Others agree with me: It offends those who wish to confine English usage in a logical straitjacket that writers often begin sentences with “and” or “but.” True, one should be aware that many such sentences would be improved by becoming clauses in compound sentences, but there are many effective and traditional uses for beginning sentences thus.

Daily Writing Tips: English teachers used to preach that one should never start a sentence with conjunctions like and or but. Does this rule still apply today? Not entirely. It is already acceptable to start sentences with such conjunctions.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Monday, July 04, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Sentence Endings

Since I still get the question, I should cover the rule that many experts have already answered: Can you use a preposition to end a sentence with? (I suppose I could have written, "Can you end a sentence with a preposition?" but I couldn't resist.) Here's the short answer: Yes.

And now for the longer answer: Only a grammar snob or an inexperienced writer would hold fast to such an arbitrary rule. Even the Oxford Dictionary Online sees no point in this rule. True, we would do well to make our sentences more concise, as in these sentences:

Wordy, Awkward: What should I do this for?
Concise, Fluent: Why should I do this?

Wordy, Awkward: Where does this go to?
Concise, Fluent: Where does this go?

But in the sentences below, the sentence ending with the preposition is better than the alternative:

Awkward: To whom should I give this?
Fluent: Whom should I give this to?

Awkward: At what are you looking?
Fluent: What are you looking at?

Books by Philip Vassallo

Sunday, July 03, 2011

127, uh, 139 Influences: A Postscript

I could have added so many more categories and hundreds of more names to those people who have affected my thinking and communication skills. As it was, over the past 9 weeks and 12 posts, I overran my promise of 120 influences and ended with 127, adding 7 names to the last 3 categories (2 artists, 2 composers, and 3 musicians). All this did was make me want to start the list all over again to add a dozen or poets, dramatists, philosophers, and so one. But I have to stop somewhere.

Yet I won't stop not quite there but here. I should close on those a final dozen folks who have lived and learned and worked with me and had the greatest influence on my thinking. Unlike the previous 12 posts, whose influences appeared in alphabetical order, these influences appear in the order that they came into my life: Frank Vassallo, my father, for his remarkable storytelling; Elizabeth Hitz, my sister, for her aspirations to all things intellectual; Joseph Vella, my uncle, for his work ethic; Matthew Loscalzo, a neighborhood friend, high school classmate, and college classmate, for his remarkable leadership skills; Robert Doyle, a high school teacher who introduced me to music and art in its truest sense; Charles Lynch, an English professor in my undergraduate years, for showing me that great literature is not limited to the past; Georgia Kostares, my wife, for reminding me that selflessness and loyalty to family transfers to the writing discipline; Harry Kamish, my professional mentor, for his acumen and boundless knowledge; John Hitz, my brother-in-law, for the value he places on scholarship; Robert Delisle, a professor at Lehman College, for his perspective on children-centered education; J. J. Chambliss, a graduate professor at Rutgers, for his depth of intellectual inquiry; and Michael Bartlett, a spiritual mentor, for exemplifying how to walk the talk.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

120 Influences, Part 12: Musicians

Once again, I could not narrow a top ten list from these thirteen:
  1. Miles Davis, the trumpeter whose records from Blue Period (1951) through Seven Steps to Heaven (1963) are all jazz classics.
  2. Bill Evans, one of the most influential jazz pianists ever. Any of his trio albums will do.
  3. Stan Getz, known as "The Sound" for good reason. His tenor saxophone is immediately recognizable.
  4. Dizzy Gillespie, who with Charlie Parker created a new music and extended his singular trumpet prowess to small groups and big bands as a worldwide ambassador of jazz.
  5. Glenn Gould, playing the entire Bach solo piano collection, including Goldberg Variations (1955 and 1982 recordings), The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Inventions and Sinfonias, French Suites, English Suites, Partitas, and Toccatas.
  6. Stephane Grappelli, whom I saw perform numerous times, would put a smile on anyone's face with the first note he played on his legendary violin.
  7. Yo-Yo Ma, a cellist whose skill on the cello, passion for an astounding range of music, and credibility about nearly anything is unmatched.
  8. Charlie Parker, the alto saxophone giant, co-founder of Be-Bop, and generator of Afro-Cuban music.
  9. Oscar Peterson, Mr. Jazz, who played his piano in every format and with every jazz artist imaginable over a 60-year career.
  10. George Rodriguez, a friend, leader of The New Swing Sextet, and vibraphonist committed to all things Salsa and who taught me to appreciate his music.
  11. Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus, his tenor has engaged me in live performance from Montreux, Switzerland to Carnegie Hall.
  12. Andres Segovia, the master who brought dignity to the guitar as a classical instrument and played in the greatest concert halls into his nineties.
  13. Toots Thielemans, who jazz harmonica just captured my imagination three decades ago, and I've never let go of him since.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

120 Influences, Part 11: Composers

Here's another list I couldn't keep to just ten:

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach: The father and the master of all composers. Everyone musical owes something to him. I shall listen to his solo pieces for piano, violin, and cello forever.

  2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Yes, Symphony 9, but my favorites are his string quartets, especially his last four, no. 13 in B-flat (opus 130), no. 14 in C-sharp (opus 131), no 15 in A (opus 132), and no 16 in F (opus 135).

  3. Frederic Chopin: His works for piano are the standard. His complete works for solo piano by Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Ashkenazy are readily available.

  4. Bob Dylan: The prolific troubadour of the past half-century. Of his 50-plus albums, his first six remain all-time standouts: Bob Dylan (1962), The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), and Highway 61 Revisited (1965).

  5. Duke Ellington: The greatest American composer of the twentieth century and perhaps of anywhere ever. Listen to any of his suites: Black, Brown and Beige, Liberian Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, Afro-Bossa, Far East Suite, Latin American Suite, New Orleans Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and Toga Brava Suite. And these are just for starters.

  6. George Gershwin: The romantic, inventive prodigy who crossed jazz, musical, and classical genres to unforgettable success and popular appeal. His songs are great, but so are Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess.

  7. Antonio Carlos Jobim: He exported bossa nova to the world, and countless musicians have performed his masterpieces, including Agua de Beber, Aguas de Marco, Chega de Saudade, Corcovado, Desafinado, Dindi, Garota de Ipanema, Insensatez, Samba de Uma Nota So, So Danco Samba, Triste, and Vou te Contar.

  8. John Lennon and Paul McCartney: I don't want to argue who wrote what; it's all about the voluminous, memorable music they produced in such a short timeframe.

  9. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: So many of the world's most creative people have been inspired by his music. Check out his piano sonatas and concertos as well as his later symphonies (no. 31 in D "Paris"; no 35 in D, "Haffner"; no, 36 in C, "Linz"; no. 38 in D, "Prague"; and no. 41 in C, "Jupiter").

  10. Cole Porter: The chief of Tin Pan Alley, the consummate composer of some 800 songs, the best known of which are All of You, Anything Goes, Begin the Beguine, Cheek to Cheek, Do I Love You?, Every Time We Say Goodbye, I Get a Kick Out of You, I Love Paris, In the Still of the Night, I've Got You Under My Skin, It's All Right with Me, Just One of Those Things, Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love), Let's Fly Away, Let's Misbehave, Love for Sale, Miss Otis Regrets, Night and Day, Too Darn Hot, What Is This Thing Called Love?, You Do Something to Me, You'd Be So Easy to Love, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To, and You're the Top.

  11. Richard Rodgers: He wrote the most melodic music, whether working with Lorenz Hart (Bewitched, Blue Moon, I Didn't Know What Time It Was, Isn't It Romantic, Johnny One Note, The Lady Is a Tramp, Lover, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, My Funny Valentine, There's a Small Hotel, You Took Advantage of Me, This Can't Be Love, and Where or When) or Oscar Hammerstein (Bali Hai, Climb Every Mountain, Do-Re-Mi, Getting to Know You, Hello Young Lovers, I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy, If I Loved You, It Might As Well Be Spring, My Favorite Things, O What a Beautiful Morning, Shall We Dance?, Some Enchanted Evening, The Sound of Music, You'll Never Walk Alone, and Younger Than Springtime).

  12. Paul Simon: He kept stretching the boundaries of folk-rock with hundreds of songs over five decades. Most memorable are America, The Boxer, Bridge over Troubled Water, Cecilia, El Condor Pasa, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, The 59th Street Bridge Song, Graceland, Homeward Bound, I Am a Rock, Kodachrome, Loves Me Like a Rock, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Mother and Child Reunion, Mrs. Robinson, Old Friends, and The Sound of Silence.