Friday, December 28, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "Sparks of Genius"

In Sparks of Genius, the Root-Bernsteins posit a strong case for brilliance manifesting itself in specific mental and physical activities that we can cultivate. Their exhaustive research and engaging stories suggest the J. S. Bachs, Anton Chekovs, Noam Chomskys, Albert Einsteins, Martha Grahams, Helen Kellers, Mary Leakeys, Vladimir Nabokovs, and Pablo Picassos of today or any era possess many or all of thirteen thinking tools. The authors systematically dedicate one chapter to each of these abilities: observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patters, forming patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming, and synthesizing.

They conclude with a powerful appeal to the educational system for providing environments, curricula, instructors, methodologies, and materials that elevate the arts, cross all disciplines, encourage creativity, and foster invention. Reading this book is like surveying the history and the future of innovation.

Friday, December 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Talent Code"

Does practice make perfect? I have often wondered about the truth of that aphorism. A brief look at any physical or intellectual endeavor shows that some people seem to practice just as hard as accomplished performers without achieving anywhere near the same level of mastery.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle argues that practice does perfect, provided that it is the sort of "deep practice" that triggers myelin, which is the material that wraps around the axons in the brain and is believed to be the source of mastery. As Coyle puts it, myelin trumps social prosperity, peace, freedom, mobility and paradigms. Deep practice fires impulses that strengthen myelin. It is no wonder that Florence of the late fifteenth century developed many of the greatest artists ever, Russia maintained a monopoly on the chess world for the latter half of the twentieth century, and the Dominican Republic produces more major League baseball players per capita than anyplace else. Their common denominator is an environment and coaching regimen that systematizes practice into appropriate, repeatable steps, which develop skill circuits to the point that the learners are unaware they're using them.

The three steps to deep practice detailed in The Talent Code are "chunking" by absorbing the whole skill and breaking it into small parts, repeating the activity, and "feeling" it. Coyle strongly suggests that learners cannot achieve mastery alone; rather, they need master coaches who can teach the required skills on infinitely deeper levels, perceive the learner's uniqueness, know the path to take for individual learners (what Coyle calls the GPS reflex), and point out learner errors honestly and memorably.

This book may well be one to which educators across the country will refer in reforming education, especially on the elementary level.

Friday, December 14, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Watchman's Rattle"

Have we humans confronted problems that have not yet learned to overcome? Have we exacerbated these problems? Can these problems lead to the demise of the race? According to trendist Rebecca D. Costa, the answers to these three questions are yes, yes, and yes.

With great authority and credibility along with exceptional writing style, Costa muses about the decline of three magnificent empires, the Mayan, the Roman, and the Khmer. They existed in three different eras and in three different continents, spoke different religions and languages, and had different climates. They all achieved remarkable architectural and engineering feats which sustained their civilizations for centuries. They experienced unprecedented cultural, commercial, and agricultural renaissances that enriched their cultural immeasurably. Then what made them collapse? Costa believes they shared a common human flaw: cognitive threshold, which occurs when a society cannot think its way out of its problems, be they foreign military threats, famine and drought, or cataclysmic geological events. People reach a gridlock preventing them from pooling their intellectual resources to ward off such problems when they substitute beliefs for knowledge, when faith trumps science.
The Watchman's Rattle does not maintain that religiosity is a human disease; she does believe that faith and knowledge can coexist harmoniously to benefit humanity. However, she insists that memes, or widely accepted ways of thinking, undermine creative problem solving based on empirical knowledge. Costa dedicates a chapter to each of the five supermemes she sees plaguing us today: irrational opposition, personalization of blame, counterfeit correlation, silo thinking, and extreme economics. Once any of these supermemes take hold, leading us to cognitive threshold, we tend to disregard data, reject viable solutions, and condemn insight. Opposition substitutes for advocacy and short-term, short-sighted mitigations abound.

Fortunately, Watchman's Rattle answers a fourth question with a resounding yes: Can we humans who contributed to these problems be agents in solving them? Costa pleads for a rebalancing of knowledge and beliefs and a restoration in trusting insight. While this may sound like a belief in disguise, it is not. She carefully details the link between insight and wisdom. After all, she is a disciple of biologist Edward O. Wilson and James D. Watson, who both overcame their own silo thinking to resolve their scientific differences.

If in this current political climate, not just in the United States but across the globe, there is a more readable, engaging book to show us where the human race now stands, I do not know of it.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Those Darn Articles, Part 5: Aberrations

[NOTE: For earlier parts in this series, see Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.]

The anomalies of the definite article continue with this post.

Most organizations do not use an article when spoken or written in their complete or abbreviated form. Examples include:

  • "I work for Hewlett-Packard" or "I work for HP."
  • "This drug is made by Bristol-Myers Squibb" or "This drug is made by BMS."
Unfortunately for those trying to learn English, many exceptions exist:

  • "I visited the Federal Bureau of Investigation" or "I visited the FBI." 
  • "She is a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" or "She is a member of the NAACP." 
Then some organizations use the article in their full name but not in their abbreviated one. Examples:

  • "Have you gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" but "Have you gone to MMA?"
  • "He  attended the University of Southern California" but "He attended USC."
Finally, some entities whose names are structured in a syntactically identical way do not agree on how their abbreviated forms should be expressed. These examples from the official websites of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) are proof:

  • DEP must comply with various state and federal laws.
  • Commissioner Raymond Kelly is a 43-year veteran of the NYPD.
Why DEP but the NYPD is not easy to explain. Saying "I work for the DEP" sounds strange, yet saying either "I work for the NYPD" or "I work for NYPD" sounds equally acceptable to the native English speaker. As many nonnative speakers tell me, you have to get a feel for the article because knowing the rules alone just won't do.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Five Things I've Learned from Teaching in China, Part 5

[This post is the last of a five-part series on what I have learned from teaching in China.]

Entrance to the Beijing International MBA program
At the end of each of my three classes at BiMBA, I asked my students to say one thing that they learned in the course. One student, Cara, who delivered a perfect presentation and raised the level of her team's performance, stood in front of the class and said, “What I learned is the value of trusting your teammates. We learned to trust each other by agreeing to meet one night for dinner. We sat in a restaurant, and no one opened a laptop to look at the presentations. We just got to know each other. We ate together, talked about our families, our plans, and our interests. Then when we got together in class the next week to practice as a team, we made great progress."

This lesson was the greatest one that I learned as a teacher in Beijing. I constantly told my students to work as a team but I did not tell them how they might accelerate that process. Cara showed us all how--by becoming like a family.

Being in Beijing for 30 days was a great pleasure for me. Yes, I enjoyed the outstanding Chinese cuisine. Yes, I visited the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, and those are amazing sights. But what I will never forget are these lessons learned from my students.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Five Things I Learned from Teaching in China, Part 4

[This post is the fourth of a five-part series on what I have learned from teaching in China.]

Many students in my classes at the Beijing International MBA program made individual coaching appointments with me to improve their writing or presentation skills. On one occasion, four students met with me as a group to sharpen up for their second team presentation. Since three sat around as one received the coaching, I decided to put them to work. "Amanda, you critique Mike's body language. Lilian, you cover his voice. Zach, you have his PowerPoint slides."

The results were excellent. The students noted details that I overlooked, and each comment they made was right on target. In this way, we continued until all four received feedback while I concluding with summary remarks. And this team delivered the best presentation of 17 groups.

Weiming Lake on the campus of Peking University
A big part of my classroom teaching focused on relying on teammates to receive unrelenting criticism, so this approach was nothing new; however, being present while students criticized each other gave more legitimacy and greater credence to their commentaries. I have decided to make coaching sessions like these routine for future classes.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Five Things I've Learned from Teaching in China, Part 3

[This post is the third of a five-part series on what I have learned from teaching in China.]

In my classes at the Beijing International MBA program, students are separated into small groups of four or five, with each member playing a specific role (e.g., CEO, COO, CFO) in a fictitious start-up business whose job is to deliver a persuasive presentation to a group of venture capitalists (their fellow classmates). The youngest student in the room (let's call him Chris) talked about how he and his teammates practiced fielding difficult questions in preparation of their team presentation. "We thought of the holes in our argument and came up with responses to questions that might come our way about those weaknesses," he explained.

Chris's point made me think of the recently concluded United States presidential debates, for which the candidates assigned a member of his party to play his opponent in practice debates. The idea behind this tactic was to get the candidate comfortable in the presence of a harsh critique and to practice responding to attacks, counterattacks, and difficult questions. I regularly told my students to think of challenges they might receive from a difficult audience, but never did I tell them to rehearse their presentation by playing the role of that difficult audience. Thanks to Chris, I will make future groups practice by determining the toughest questions they might get and crafting responses to them.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Five Things I’ve Learned from Teaching in China, Part 2

A courtyard in the Beijing International MBA Program
[This post is the second of a five-part series on what I have learned from teaching in China.]

I am a typical East Coaster: fast-talking  and wise-cracking. Now that I have met all 85 of my students spread across 3 classes, I have learned that humor doesn't always translate well and that I speak faster than I had thought.

I admire my students, all of whom are multilingual, some already holders of doctorates and other higher academic degrees, and most with deep international experience. Nevertheless, English is the first language of only three of them. It takes some courage to attend an MBA program in a foreign language, so the least I can do is reconsider what I find funny and slow down when speaking. I'm sure they'll appreciate these adjustments.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Five Things I've Learned from Teaching in China, Part 1

[This post is the first of a five-part series on what I have learned from teaching in China.]

I am writing from my room in the Shaoyuan Guest House on the campus of Peking University in Beijing. Tomorrow I begin teaching Report Writing and Presentation Skills to the first of three graduate classes of approximately 30 students per class for the Beijing International MBA program (BiMBA).

One of the great pleasures of teaching adults is that I learn as much as I teach. In this case, I have not taught even my first class, yet I have already learned an important lesson. On the way from my hotel room to BiMBA is a serene wooded path that leads to a scenic lake. On the path is a monument to Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), a Chinese intellectual who became the university president in 1917. Yuanpei worked extremely hard to make the university a sanctuary of academic freedom. His memory is so revered on the campus that fresh flowers always appear at the foot of the monument, and Chinese students often can be found standing quietly before the bronze statue. Perhaps they are reflecting about Yuanpei's legacy. Maybe they're saying, "Please inspire me to pass this important exam," or "Thank you for making this educational opportunity available to me" or "I hope to accomplish in my life just a small measure of what you have."

Whatever these students devotedly whisper to the statue, I have learned something from witnessing this scene: that Chinese students greatly value intellectual history. Therefore, I will surely work hard to contribute whatever I can to my students' intellectual development during my month here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Got a Life Changer?

People who tell me they want to write but have little to write about just don’t get it. I can think of dozens of moments—literally seconds in the vast timeline of my life—that changed me. And I’m not talking about when as a pedestrian I evaded an oncoming truck that would have flattened me, or when I stepped into an abandoned warehouse with the elevator doors closing behind me and two Dobermans snarling at me for an endless twenty seconds until the elevator opened again. No Bruce Willis moments, although those are pretty cool too.

I’m thinking about the time as a ten-year-old kid I landed in Luqa Airport, Malta, after my first trans-Atlantic flight ever to meet for the first time relatives I had heard about my entire young life. I remember being tossed from one relative to another, kissed and squeezed and never before having felt so much undeserved love. Or a decade later when in the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, I heard Sonny Rollins soloing on his booming tenor saxophone during “To a Wild Rose,” making me a committed jazz fan for the rest of my life. Or only half a year later when I sat in a college classroom checking out a woman sitting next to me who I did not know would become my wife of 36 years and become the mother of my two daughters.

I bring up these moments for two reasons. First, to remind anyone who wants to write that you do have plenty to write about. Second, to remind myself that new life-changing moments await me as I head to China next week for the first time to teach report writing and presentation skills to graduate students at the Beijing International MBA program. Writing opportunities lie everywhere: notice and record them when they happen.

If you’ve got a life changer, I’d enjoy hearing about it!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Useful Pointers on Presenting

As demand for my course Creating Powerful PowerPoint Decks grows, WORDS ON THE LINE readers should find helpful the excellent series by the Harvard Business Review (HBRon designing and delivering presentations. Written by Nancy Duarte, these three articles appear as promotions of Duarte's latest book HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. Having read her book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, I can attest to quality of her insights into what makes a great presenter and presentation.    

The HBR posts are helpful reminders to experienced presenters contending with the latest technology as well as to people who are new to the live or remote presentation world. Here are the links:

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Value of the Writing Process

A participant of a recent course, Sage Robertson, wrote a thank-you note to me. I always appreciate receiving these messages, and this one was especially memorable because he included a memorable learning moment, one that I stress whenever I teach the writing process. In his words:
I wrote down many important points of yours yesterday but I was most inspired by "If you get stuck, it's because you didn't plan enough."
I'm truly glad that Mr. Robertson took that point to heart for two reasons, one concerning his self-development as a writer and the other as a reminder to myself as a writing consultant. 

First, when introducing himself to the class, he said that while he loves reading good writing, he finds writing itself a difficult, painful activity. For this reason, I give him a lot of credit for taking the course in the first place. It shows he is committed to overcoming challenges that can affect his job performance.

Second, his comment is praiseworthy because he focused on an intangible learning moment, a process-related takeaway, something  instructional designers shy from because they fear that learners may find process-related topics to be immeasurable, and therefore, unteachable, while product-related topics are more desirable simply because they are measurable. My 35 years of teaching writing tells me that this thinking is wrong. Using the writing process sensibly goes a longer way than anything else toward improving writing because it instills confidence in writers, provides multiple points of entry into problematic writing assignments, and promotes efficiency throughout the writing task.

Thanks for the note, Sage!

Friday, October 05, 2012

We Love Puppies and Rainbows

When  I saw Jennifer Thompson from Selective Insurance in one of my writing classes, I immediately remembered a comment she made in a class she had with me earlier this year. She said that while she felt comfortable about her ability to get to the point, she wanted to improve her tone by putting into her written messages more "puppies and rainbows." I laughed then and seeing her again several months later, the comment remained fresh.

What Jennifer meant was adding more of what I call context language, the nice-to-know or helpful-to-know information, to support the content language, the need-to-know information. Here are three examples, from different fields, of writing without context language followed by examples that try to balance content with context.

Example 1: Retail - from a Sales Associate to a Customer 
Content Language Only: We do not sell that product in this store.  
Content Language with Context Language: We're sorry that we have run out of stock for that product because it's so popular. If you can't get to our crosstown store, we'd be happy to get one from there into our store within three days or have the store mail it to you for a nominal charge.
Example 2: Business to Business - from a Client to a Vendor
Content Language Only: Your invoice is incorrect.
Content Language with Context Language: We see a discrepancy between your invoice and our attached record of the services you provided. Would you please clarify the difference with a breakdown of the services rendered or readjust your invoice accordingly?

Example 3: Internal Corporate: from the IT Help Desk to a Senior Manager
Content Language Only: You did not send us your slide deck.
Content Language with Context Language: We want to ensure that your presentation goes as expected, so please send us your slide deck today, and we will load it for you tomorrow morning.

Notice the value added in the second draft of each message. In the first draft, the writer gets to the point but would be far too blunt if the relationship with the reader were not well established. In the second draft, the writer still gets to the point but provides reasoning or simple good manners.

Yes, Ms. Thompson might have called context language "puppies and rainbows," but she was not downplaying its importance in driving home a message. She's smart enough to realize that she works for a client-focused company. 

Be sure to balance content with context. Too little context will make you come across as blunt, insensitive, or thoughtless; too much of it will make you look ingratiating, verbose, or unfocused.  Thanks for the reminder, Jennifer.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The 3, Uh 4, Big Recruiter Questions

When Forbes Magazine published the article "Top Executive Recruiters Agree There Are Only Three True Job Interview Questions", I had engaging dialogues with  colleagues and clients in the writing consulting industry about the topic. The first two questions (Can you do the job? Will you love the job?) relate to intrapersonal skills, how you deal with yourself; the third question (Can we tolerate working you?) relates to interpersonal skills, how you deal with others.

Since interviewees may answer preemptively yes, yes, and yes to these three terribly open-ended questions, recruiters have many indirect ways of asking them to yield specific responses and gain real insights into the job candidate. For the first they might ask, How long have you been in this industry? What projects have you completed? With whom have you collaborated? How did the project turn out? For the second they might ask, Have you done work at home? How do you describe your work to your friends and family? Has your formal education prepared you for this work? What connections do you see with your life and your work? And for the third they might ask, Why did you leave your last job? What were your teammates and managers like? Do you stay in touch with any of your former coworkers? What do you miss about your previous job?

Undoubtedly, these three questions are terrific for opening the door to real conversations and getting to the bottom of what makes a candidate tick. That's exactly why I believe a fourth question can reinforce the other three and effectively close the door to the interview. That fourth question is Can you live with yourself by working with us? 

I speak not only for myself but for hundreds of others who have talked to me about their work experiences. Many of them have said they want more from life. Sure, they can do the job. Sure, they love what they do. Sure, they love the people. But do they feel fulfilled on the job? Do they see themselves as contributors not only to the business but to the greater good? Do they go to bed at night saying, "What a great day of accomplishments! I love my life. I can't wait until tomorrow to do more of the same."

Now, some interviewers might say that answering the second question, Will you love the job?, is sufficient to gain insight into my proposed fourth question. I disagree. Many people have told me they love their job but long to do something more important, something that they have to find outside of work because it doesn't exist at their job. In other words, they would answer yes to all three questions but no to my fourth one. Those first three questions provide great insights into short-term matters; the fourth question lifts a window of understanding into long-term, career-related issues. Will you love the job? is a question of passion, but Can you live with yourself by working with us? is a question of commitment. Passion can be short-lived, but not commitment.

As I have helped many people with their resumes and cover letters throughout the past 35 years, I have insisted that they show more than accomplishment. They must show commitment. Employers are short-sighted if they aren't looking for the same.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lipogram: What's Unusual About This Post?

A big plus of working on writing with adults is that I pick up as much wisdom as I impart. But kids can also pass on a thing or two to instructors. Ishika Jain, a primary school pupil, is a grand illustration of such a child. 

Ishika's mom, who was in my grammar class from this Monday to Thursday, said that Ishika was taught in school about lipograms and a book Gadsby by an author who did craft such an opus in lipogram fashion,  amazingly laying down 50,000 words without using a particular symbol. I will not say what that symbol is, as I am trying my hand at a lipogram in this post. Can you spot which symbol I am trying so hard not apply to all four paragraphs? 

You might rightly ask, "Why would a man or woman want to do such a thing?" I can think of two motivations: First, authors do such things simply for fun. Also, writing this post did assign many a difficulty, as I constantly had to twist my thinking and look up optional words just to avoid including that symbol. I gladly will try such a task as a way of boosting my productivity. This post is not as long as Gadsby, but a 250-word composition is not bad for a first (and last) try.

I did not know about lipograms or that book; thus, I can truly say that Ishika has taught yours truly. So a big thanks to you, Ishika!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A One-Syllable Story

In a Writing for the Web course that I teach for the American Management Association, participants learn a lot about writing by drafting a one-syllable story. The rules are simple. Write on any topic you like as long as each word, excluding proper nouns, is only one syllable. What they appreciate about the exercise is its reminder to keep things simple and clear. If you can't express it in a plain language, you can't express it. 

Below is an example of a single-syllable 400-word story. Have fun reading it, and write one of your own  just for the joy of it.

Two Dropped Dates
What a drag. Stuck in The Bronx with no date. I just woke up to find out that Jane won't be here as planned. I cleaned the house spic and span and cooked a great meal, hot dogs, pork and beans, and French fries, and I had a fine red wine good to go. I was so beat from all this prep time that I dozed off as soon as I sat on the couch. Then the phone rings and wakes me up. It was Jane. She says she hit a snag on her way up to my place, some tale of woe, her car broke down and she was stuck with it at the Czar Pop Car Shop and don't ask to pick her up since she needs the car as soon as she leaves, so how sad to say she won't make it. So she kills me four times: first with that shock out of my sleep, then with her no show, then that song and dance about the car, and to boot that lie about how sad she was.
Please. I don't buy her yarn for a beat. Give me a break. If she had her heart on me, she would have found a way to get here. But I'm not one to beg or twist your arm when you want to do your own thing. Go. See if I care. As if I don't know that she's got her eyes on Jim. I know when he moved back from Maine that's all that was on her mind. You go for that long hair, that bling in his ear and stud in his tongue, that tall, slim type. Who cares if he ain't got a job? What's it to you if he gets rough with his hands? So what if he'll slip out of your life the first time you're down on your luck?
Well, that's fine by me. Cause you know what, Jane? I know the boss at the Czar Pop Car Shop and he owes me one. So his tow truck guy found Jane's car in front of her house and tried to jack it all the way back to Maine, but oops, the car fell off the hook and slid down the Bronx Creek. Too bad. No way they'll hook up. I guess that's three of us with no date on this spring night. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Update: Websites for Writers

Here is a long awaited update of useful websites for writers:

If you don't find what you're looking for, you can always browse the writers' websites WORDS ON THE LINE has collected over the past eight years.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Writing

English poet Stephen Spender described the writing process of his fellow poets as of the Mozartian (planners) or Beethovian (discoverers) mode, meaning that Mozartians tend to create a path or structure for what they will draft, while Beethovians figure out the path during drafting, as they go along. Reading “Zen in the Art of Writing” reveals that Ray Bradbury possessed a healthy balance of both approaches. Like a Mozartian, he was constantly searching for connections between his experiences and writing; like a Beethovian, he drafted relentlessly as evidenced by his prolific output of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, teleplays, and juvenilia over a career spanning more than seventy years.

Through anecdotes, quips, and aphorisms in 9 essays and 7 prose-poems over 158 highly readable pages, Bradbury proffers advice to novice writers to encourage them in their writing process and continued development. Here are some gems:

“The first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.” (page 4)

“Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the sense and keeps them in prime condition.” (page 39)

“Read those writers who write the way you hope to write, who think the way you would like to think. But also read those who do not think as you think or write as you want to write, and so be stimulated in directions you might not take for many years.” (page 41)  

“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out.” (page 131)

“Imitation is natural and necessary to the beginning writer.” (page 136)

When one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century speaks about himself and his work, aspiring writers or curious readers should pay attention. If they do, they will be able to dip into Zen in the Art of Writing for many points of inspiration.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Great Post of Writers on Writing

I often recommend that aspiring writers read reflections on writing by successful ones. A good way to get a taste of what I mean is to read these 22 quotes from 22 celebrated authors posted at The Chive. They're all good, notably the funniest, not surprisingly, from Mark Twain; one that I have always maintained about the need to read and write from Stephen King; a reminder about the value of rewriting by Ernest Hemingway's reminder that even great writers rewrite; and G.K. Chesterton's advice on how to handle criticism.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Grammar Cop Throws the Book at Job Prospects

An article by iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens in The Harvard Business Review assures us that we need good grammar if we are to work for him. Mr. Wiens requires job applicants to take a grammar test, which he calls his "litmus test" in deciding whether to hire them. And he makes a good argument for us to believe that his standards are shared by many hiring managers when he writes:
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing—like stocking shelves or labeling parts. ... I hire people who care about those details. Applicants who don't think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren't important.

Many practical tips on grammar and usage appear in The Art of On-the-Job Writing.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good Grammar Remains a Hot Issue

For the past 28 years, I have heard executives and managers tell me how they cringe when their employees abuse Standard English rules. Needless to say, those complaints increased as email grew in popularity and have become even louder as smartphones allowed us  to text on the run. The Wall Street Journal reminds us of this common managerial grievance in a recent article.

Some organizations go so far as screening all staff emails to clients before approving their release. Others authorize only a select few employees to write directly to clients. Still others that do not have such a luxury of limiting external communication to a chosen few applies the sensible approach of requiring all important documents to undergo peer review to detect overlooked errors in grammar, diction, punctuation, and capitalization.

Of the many courses that I offer to companies, my Business Grammar workshop has generated the most interest recently. In fact, the American Management Association asked me last year to design its first AMA's Business Grammar Workshop and this year to adapt it as a live online version.

Unquestionably, writers' attention to grammar reflects their attention to detail, so grammar still does matter.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Punctuation Pointers, Part 4: Capitalize after a Colon?

You will not find unanimous opinion on whether to capitalize the first word of an independent clause following a colon. An excellent online resource, which I've recommended on this blog before, The Guide to Grammar and Writing by Capital Community College, Hartford, Connecticut, suggests that you should capitalize in certain cases, yet this contradictory example sentence appears on its explanation:
There is only one thing left to do now: confess while you still have time.
But if you read the rest of the post, you'll get a sensible explanation of its use. By the way, I do capitalize independent clauses following colons and do not capitalize dependent clauses following colons. Examples:

Remember this: You must work hard to achieve your goals.
Remember to bring the following items: ID card, enrollment confirmation, and flash drive. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Punctuation Pointers, Part 3: Capitalizing and Punctuating Lists

No universal standard exists for capitalizing and punctuating bulleted or numbered lists. The Microsoft Word default is to capitalize the first word in each item, and the editors of one of my clients insist that I follow this pattern when writing for them. Another client wants me not to capitalize or insert end punctuation except for a period at the end of the final item. Lawyers tend to insert semicolons at the end of each item, an and at the end of the penultimate one, and a period at the end of the final one.

None of these systems makes sense to me because they either undermine the grammatical sense underlying the content or they complicate the simplicity that lists are intended to convey. Regardless of which system you prefer, do not say or let anyone tell you (not even me) that there's a right way to capitalize and punctuate lists. All ways are a matter of taste.

Here is how I apply capitalization and punctuation to lists:

Do not capitalize or punctuate if the items are not sentences. Example:

Please remember to bring the following documents:
  • birth certificate
  • driver's license
  • passport

Capitalize the first word and apply periods at the end of each item when the items are sentences. Example:

If you are the last to leave the office, please complete the following security requirements:
  1. Lock the window.
  2. Set the alarm.
  3. Turn off the lights.
  4. Lock the door.

This system makes the most sense to me because it is compatible to Standard English rules, consistent for the reader grasping the content, and memorable for the writer to employ.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Punctuation Pointers, Part 2: The Difference Between a Colon and a Dash

During punctuation exercises in writing classes, some people want to use the dash in place of the colon and vice versa. Well, these two punctuation marks are closely related in their intention, so let's see what the difference is.

A colon follows a lead-in sentence that makes an  announcement. For instance:
  •  Moe Coe should bring the following tools: pliers, hammer, and screwdriver.
  • Attending the meeting were as follows: John Conn, Jane Lane, and Sandy Tandy.

Notice how the following or as follows often precedes a colon. But these phrases are not mandatory, as in this example: I like Carson Larson for one reason: he works hard.

A dash also leads into information, but with far greater emphasis. Examples:
  • Sue Du did a fine job—as she always does.
  • Mark Dark will win—for the third straight year—the Employee of the Year Award.

Let's contrast two closely related sentences to illustrate the difference between the colon and the dash:
  • Here is my response: no.
  • My response—for the third time—is no.

Do you sense the difference?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

BOOK BRIEF: "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker serves as tour guide through syntax and language development to support his most compelling claims that all infants come into the world with linguistic ability and that grammatical rules are senseless, as they are concocted arbitrarily and perpetuated pointlessly.

The Language Instinct launches from the deep structure linguistic  theory of Pinker's MIT colleague, Noam Chomsky, to suggest that language is indeed hard wired in the brain but that it is also learned, evolving over millennia and differentiating through forces of mutation, heredity, and geographical isolation.

The book reviews the function of phonemes, morphemes, words, sentences, and alphabets with a good portion examining syntax and semantics in combination. The insights a casual reader will gain from this book will result only from a careful, sometimes painstaking, study of Pinker's dense prose, which he often peppers with humor.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Punctuation Pointers, Part 1: The Introductory Comma

Everyone seems to have an opinion on punctuation, so I might as well admit that I have one too. All the rules are out there in countless style books, so I will avoid rehashing them and look at issues that pop up in my consulting work.

I should begin with the most frequently omitted punctuation mark, the introductory comma, the comma that has prevented millions of students around the world and over the years from achieving a perfect score on their essays. Many people, especially those who were not born to the English language, learned to place a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause just before the subject.

But they overdo it. In the correctly punctuated sentences below, notice the introductory comma is absent from numbers 7 and 8:
  1. Fortunately, Karl will be our manager.
  2. Karl, you are the manager.
  3. If you need a good manager, choose Karl.
  4. Getting executive support, Karl became the manager.
  5. To increase his income, Karl became a manager.
  6. For now, Karl is the manager.
  7. Today Karl is the manager.
  8. Please make Karl the manager. 

Some writers and style books say that the introductory phrase in sentence 6 is too short to warrant a comma, but I use the comma after all introductory prepositional phrases regardless of length for consistency. On the other hand, native speakers do not pause even slightly after the one-word introductions in sentence 6, today, and sentence 7, please. So the comma is unnecessary.

Click here for more tips on punctuation.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Reading-Writing Connection Redux

In my work as a writing instructor and coach, I stress the importance of reading like a writer, for both gathering needed information and lessons on style. Since I so often hear people say that they do not like reading or just don't make the time to read, I thought this reminder about the reading-writing connection would be useful for new readers of this blog. (I have discussed this issue in posts last year and in earlier this year.) 

I'll elaborate on the diagram beginning with the upper-left square:

  1. In the planning stage of the writing process, the blue READ square is essential in collecting ideas for a document. Working in tandem with it is the red WRITE square, which has the writer taking notes on those gathered ideas.
  2. Next comes the drafting stage, where the READ square reminds the writer to evaluate those notes for relevance, completeness, and organization. The following WRITE square demands nothing more than a rough draft, a production of all those notes in paragraph and sentence form.
  3. The last READ square on the first line is for the revising stage, the pivotal one, when the writer decides where the content goes (structure) and how he wants to come across (style).  
  4. The following READ square is a vocal one, in the editing stage, to hear how the sentences sound for fluency. If sentences seem awkward during an aloud reading, they will be to the intended readers of the document. Along with that reading comes the editing WRITE square, for clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor. 
  5. The final pair of squares on the lower left are for proofreading. Now the writer reads with a fresh pair of eyes for overlooked errors in spelling, missing words, alignment, spacing, etc.

Then the continuum loops to the beginning in an endless cycle of reading and writing. All the reading in between writing assignments should help in developing subject-matter expertise and writing style. Yes, the need to read is greater today than ever before.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Hyphen: A Not-So-Well-Known Rule

It's a good thing that the hyphen is not a frequently used punctuation mark because most people don't know how to use it. The hyphen is so misunderstood that many people call it a dash, which is a different punctuation mark. Someone recently asked me a trick question: "Do you hyphenate set up/set-up?" Sneaky sneaky.

It depends on how the words and words like them are used in a sentence. If they are nouns, yes; if they are verbs, no. Examples:

  • The set-up of this room is good. (noun)
  • Emily set up the room well. (verb)

Here are three more do's and a don't for hyphens. Use a hyphen for compound adjectives composed of a noun and an adjective, a noun and a participle, or an adjective and a participle; do not use a hyphen with an adverb and a participle:

  • Laura needs camera-ready art for the brochure. (noun + adjective = hyphen)
  • Meghan wants a custom-built car. (noun + participle = hyphen)
  • Nancy takes an open-minded position on this issue. (adjective + participle = hyphen)
  • Richard is a widely known firefighter. (adverb + participle = no hyphen) 

For that last bullet point, remember to avoid the hyphen with words ending in ly. Oxford Dictionaries provides excellent guidance on hyphen usage.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Book Review: "How Fiction Works"

How Fiction Works by James Woods is a provocative and accessible musing for writers and readers of prose—and it offers excellent insights whether the interest is fiction or nonfiction. Woods cites passages from the Western Canon, including Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, Saramago, and Woolf, among many others, to get to the essence of narration, character, plot, detail, and dialogue.

Woods’s references to other master novelists and critics, and even painters and police chiefs, make for engaging reading on a topic that transforms the casual reader to the well informed one. Among the best moments from the author himself are these:
  • The writer’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring (33).
  • Rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out (196).
  • The writer’s—or critic’s, or reader’s—task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style—in any style—which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced (233).
  • Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry (247).
If these summative points resonate for you, then How Fiction Works is worth your time.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Those Darn Articles, Part 4: Possessive Pronoun Substitutes

[NOTE: For earlier parts in this series, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

The definite articles (the) and the indefinite article (a, an) can be  replaced by possessive pronouns (i.e., my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose). In the examples below, notice how the articles in the first sentences are correctly replaced by possessive pronouns in the second sentences:

  • The book is on the desk. / My book is on your desk.
  • A house is in the city. / His house is in her city.
  • The agency's job requires an engineer. / Its job requires our engineer.
  • Does a project call for an expert. / Whose project calls for their expert?