Saturday, December 28, 2013

WORDS ON THE LINE: Nine Years Later

This post, the 553rd of this blog, ends the eighth year for WORDS ON THE LINE. Since the first post on January 4, 2005, I have focused on ways to help readers become better writers, through book briefsreferences, and websiteswhich cover useful writers' resources; and points on writing theory, style, grammaremail, and much more.

If you ever have a question, you can reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com. Here's to a productive 2014 as a writer!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Writing from Your Heart

Here's a quick anecdote for anyone considering writing as a 2014 resolution.

A gentleman (let's call him Sergei) in one of my recent classes used a proposal-writing assignment as an opportunity to write an open letter to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) arguing for improved structural engineering education in the United States. Sergei was an engineer in Russia, where he says structural foundations received greater emphasis on the undergraduate level. Now an American citizen living in New York for the past decade, he saw vast differences in the engineering education he received in Moscow from the one his son was receiving in New York. The idea of his proposal was for the ASCE to become at the least a change agent for the way the USA approaches engineering science. 

While his choice of audience and the sweep of his proposed changes were ambitious to say the least, I encouraged him to complete the assignment and send it to the ASCE for two rhetorical reasons, one of them practical and the other theoretical. The practical one is self-evident: he needed practice writing in English. The theoretical reason is no less important: what moves you to write will improve your writing.

As you resolve to improve your writing in the coming year, hold fast to those issues that inspire you, regardless of what they are. They may concern child care, democracy in Turkey, sex trafficking in the Middle East, gun control in the US, the rising popularity of chess in Asia, improved workplace safety—it doesn't matter as long as you are inspired to write. Just do the research, write about what you know, and I promise, you will see the results.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 8; J. J. Chambliss

At the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, I studied three disciplines within educational theory: philosophy, history, and sociology. Of the professors I met there, one stands out for his high quality scholarship, his deep commitment to education, and his genuine concern for students: J. J. Chambliss.

His book Educational Theory as a Theory of Conduct: From Aristotle to Dewey (State University of New York Press, 1987), is a concise collection of 12 essays that serves as an excellent starting point for students interested in the history of Western education. His ability to provide the historical underpinnings of contemporary educational topics never ceased to amaze me. 

Chambliss, now Professor Emeritus, had a reservoir of knowledge that seemed boundless, and his classroom lectures on Comenius, Condillac, and Comte remain models of content mastery.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 7: James M. Giarelli

When I was in a doctoral program in educational theory at Rutgers University in the 1990s, obtaining a degree was my third in a long list of priorities for attending graduate school.

My first reason for enrolling in the Graduate School of Education was probably the opposite of what most students enrolled there would say. I wanted a stronger theoretical foundation. I felt that I was intuitively a good teacher, but I was weak in pointing to the theoretical foundations that supported my approach. I achieved that goal by reading twice as much as the requirements on the educational philosophies Plato, Aristotle, AugustineAquinasErasmus, Vico, Dewey, Freireand many others whose concepts preceded the trendy ideas of today by centuries. 

My second reason was publication. I intended to make publishable essays of my class assignments. This decision made me do more than triple the work that professors expected of their students. For instance, if an assignment called for a 500-word summary of  Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory (95 CE), I would also contrast it with Comenius's The Great Didactic (1638 CE), leading to a 5,000-word essay, because the more exhaustive research would appeal to academic journals interested in publishing the piece. Needless to say, such a practice would annoy most professors, who just wanted to do the minimum in developing their students' perspectives and wisdom. Not James M. Giarelli, who patiently gave feedback and guided me through to my dissertation, which was as much as three times longer than my peers' work. The result was publishing more than a dozen articles in various professional and scholarly journals.

That third reason, actually getting the doctorate, has proved useful in my career. But if I had not achieved the first two aims, the third would have never happened. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 6: Sondra Perl

Sondra Perl was one of my teachers when I was studying the writing process in a graduate program at Lehman College in The Bronx, New York. Her contributions to writing theory earned her a Guggenheim fellowship, and more importantly, she was a great encouragement and positive force in her students' lives.

Perl's composing guidelines make a lot of sense, so I encourage you to read them if you struggle when writing. These tips can make the difference between abandoning and completing a writing project. Thank you, Professor Perl.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 5: Robert Delisle

When I started graduate school at Lehman College, I had been out of the university for nearly three years. I didn't have much of a plan other than expanding my knowledge. 

But that all changed when I met Professor Robert Delisle, who was the Chair of the School of Education. Bob (his preferred name) oriented me to a student-centered education, which basically advises teachers to focus not on their subject knowledge but on their students' needs. This distinction goes far beyond semantics. Once in this mindset, teachers will examine first their students' aspirations, concerns, and knowledge. Equipped with this information, they will then adapt their content, instructional methods, and evaluation instruments accordingly, enabling their students to achieve success. 

This pedagogical approach served me well when I left job as a marketing director in a nonprofit agency in 1996 to begin my educational consulting firm. I strongly believe that caring about clients above all else by customizing programs to address their needs has kept me in business more than 17 years later.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 4: Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman was my professor in an American Novel class at Baruch College when I was an English major. She had a knack for pointing out the imagery evoked in the fiction of writers such as Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. 

A renowned poet, scholar, and teacher, Schulman has published six volumes of poetry over three decades. Her work continues to inspire me, so much so that I once asked for her permission to include one of her poems, "Losses," in my play "Isn't This the Way You Wanted Me?" She graciously accommodated me. She writes magically about what it means to be a woman, a Jew, and an intellectual in a male-dominated, secular, and materialistic society. I was fortunate to be one of her students. 
   

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 3: Charles Lynch

As a student at Baruch College in New York City, I had the deep pleasure of attending a Twentieth Century American Literature class of Charles Lynch, a poet and doctoral student. He was only ten years older than I but knew so much about poets of the Beat, Confessional, Student, and Black Consciousness movements. In Charles's class (we remain on a first-name basis today), I read Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man" and "The Language"; Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," "A Supermarket in California," and "America"; Nikki Giovanni's "Adulthood" and "Nikki Rosa"; Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," and Diane Wakoski's "Blue Monday."

Charles eventually became a tenured professor at Jersey City State College, from where he will soon retire after a lifetime of teaching excellence. I am indebted to him for the wisdom he imparted, his interest in my life, and his enduring friendship.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 2; Robert Doyle

The Art and Music Appreciation class I took as a junior in St. Helena's High School, now Monsignor Scanlan High School, made a big difference in my life. Mr. Robert Doyle, the teacher, introduced me to Gustav Holst's The Planets, Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Impressionism, Surrealism, and many more artists, artworks, and artistic movements. I can say with certainty that Mr. Doyle opened me to a creative world that I did not know existed and showed me the infinite possibilities of art.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Thanks to My Teachers, Part 1: Frank Kleinbub

As we are in the midst of Thanksgiving, this post and the seven that follow are shout-outs to extraordinary teachers who educated and inspired me throughout my academic career. I mention eight masters, two each from my high school, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral years.

Going back to Saint Helena's High School in the Bronx, now Monsignor Scanlan High School, I remember Mr. Frank Kleinbub as an especially influential teacher during my teen years. He knew his stuff as a literature teacher, was great at sparking class discussions about our readings, and even better as a synthesizer of the author's text and the students' commentary.

One favor for which I remain especially grateful was the job interview he granted me when he became an assistant principal of the school and I was a recent college graduate looking for a teaching job. Although he was not hiring at the time, he suggested that I come to his office so that he could offer interview tips. That's what real educators do.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

More Sound Writing Advice from Master Writers

The nineteenth century British writer Isaac D'Israeli said, "The wise make proverbs and fools repeat them." I am not here to argue with a wise man, because his point is well taken. 

So just read the proverbs and don't repeat them, OK? You can get some great advice from writers, which you might also find inspirational. At WORDS ON THE LINE, I offer additional wisdom about writing here

Friday, November 01, 2013

Taking That Early Walk: The War Memorials

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza next to 55 Water Street.
Photos by Philip Vassallo
One of the great pleasures of working frequently in New York City is viewing the spectacular monuments that grace all parts of town. Two that I have seen many times and remain magnificent in my imagination are the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Plaza and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, each a short walk from the other, at the southern tip of Manhattan.

As I mentioned in previous posts, leaving the house early and taking a short walk are great ways for writers to generate ideas or break writer's block. But I can think of two other reasons besides writing inspiration to visit these sites: to experience their sheer beauty and educational value.

The Vietnam Veteran's site, which overlooks the East River next to the 55 Water Street office building, is a masterpiece of urban landscaping, horticulture, architecture, literature, and history. On a 70-foot-long and 16-foot-high wall of green, translucent glass blocks (photo above, lower left) are engraved excerpts of 83 letters by United States soldiers serving in Vietnam written to their loved ones back home. The words evoke a vast range of emotions, from confusion to protest to pride to grief. Along the plaza is a perfectly cultivated, bright floral garden. A Walk of Honor (photo above, upper left and right) comprises 12 granite pylons on which are engraved the names of the 1,741 New Yorkers who gave their lives in Vietnam. Especially moving are individual plaques dedicated to Marine Private First Class Dan Bullock, who at age 15 was the youngest casualty; Medal of Honor recipient Naval Lieutenant Father Vincent R. Capodanno, who died during a battle while ministering to his wounded and dying comrades; and Army Specialist Four George C. Lang, who survived the war and was also a Medal of Honor recipient for heroics on the battlefield. 

The Korean War Memorial (pictured below from both sides), next to the Hudson River and within view of the Statue of Liberty, is a 15-foot-high granite block with a Korean War soldier cut from its center. It is a stunning blend of fine art in a natural metropolitan setting, stirring memories of what has been called "the forgotten war." As one walks around it, the soldier becomes a shifting foreground for a skyscraper, the trees in Battery Park, and the sky. What remain constant are the flags of nations across the globe that were involved in the Korean conflict and the image of an everyman at war.

I cannot walk away from these monuments without thinking of humanity's ingenuity and savagery and our hope and despair. If you are in the area, be sure visit, reflect, and write. 

New York Korean War Veterans Memorial in Battery Park.
Photos by Philip Vassallo

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Balancing the Reference and the Reading Book

I have recommended other business writing books in WORDS ON THE LINE, such as The Business Writer's Handbook, Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of StyleThe Art of Styling Sentences, and Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, among others. I add The AMA Handbook of Business Writing to the list because it works well whether you want to read about theory or practice and whether you want to quickly look up the difference between a comma and a semicolon or delve into the technicalities of the writing process in the workplace.

The authors have chosen a practical three-part structure for this 637-page book. The first 30 pages, on the writing process, cover the step-by-step approach to composing challenging on-the-job documents for the writing student. The next 400 pages, titled "The Business Writer's Alphabetical Reference," copy the dictionary-entry format that has made The Business Writer's Handbook by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu so successful in its tenth edition more than 30 years after its first. Hundreds of entries appear, covering parts of speech, parts of sentences, punctuation marks, idiomatic expressions, commonly confused words, and technology considerations, among many other points of interest to business and technical writers. The final 200 pages offer 100 sample business documents for those who want models to follow as they compose their first work-related messages.

Whether you bookshelf or e-bookmark this handbook, you will find it helpful as an easy reference or an in-depth read.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Finding Motivation Off the Beaten Path

Are you having trouble getting started as a writer? Enough has appeared in print, notably Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, to show the link between creativity and the ability (or, I should say, inclination) to make connections between people, places, things, or ideas that the average person overlooks. Most creative geniuses will find ideas anywhere for the subject of their next design, drawing, painting, song, dance, poem, play, story, or essay.

Here's a suggestion for the next time you feel stuck when writing: Just do something unusual. Break the routine. For instance, get off the subway a stop before your destination and walk the rest of the way. Or leave the house for work five minutes earlier than you normally do and drive the local route. Or food-shop at an offbeat time and pass the aisles you generally avoid. Or visit a new website that someone recommended and you've been meaning to check out. In any of these scenarios, focus on your specific subject of creation. It doesn't matter whether the topic is a charcoal drawing about the eighteenth-century slave trade in the Caribbean, a protest song about the recent Congressional deadlock, a modern dance about the drudgery of contemporary life, or an article imagining the uses of technology on elementary education in the next decade. Look for connections between what you are experiencing and your topic. The darkened street that you are walking down may suggest how the lack of electrical power in the eighteenth century required the need for slaves to hold torches for other slaves laboring in fields at night for your drawing on the Caribbean slave trade. Or the overflowing refuse beside the trashcan that you see during your local drive may summon an idea about how government services are declining for your protest song about Congress. Or the repetitive motion of a janitor waxing the supermarket floor may conjure up a unique movement for your dance. Or a photo on the website of a mail carrier lugging a half-empty sack may make you think about how the post office and education-related businesses have lost so much business to the Internet for your piece about technology and education. Be sure to write down those thoughts so that you don't forget them when you return to your easel, keyboard, studio, or desk.

As I said before in this blog, ideas are everywhere. It's up to you to grab them and take them somewhere.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 10: Coaching Yourself

This last post in a 10-part series about writing tips from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) nicely summarizes the previous 9 parts. It urges writers to write a lot, read a lot, write about what they know, revise, share writing, get organized, and more.

All 10 of these one-page tip sheets succinctly and memorably describe key writing issues with authority. They are worth saving for reference when you need them. All the best with your writing!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 9: Coaching Young Writers

While this tip sheet from the NCTE is for parents who want to make better writers of their children, those of us who just need to write at work had better pay attention to its excellent advice:

  • Write for different audiences to better understand their contrasting concerns and to improve your overall command of topic.
  • Start always with praise when criticizing writing.
  • Read and write to sharpen your writing skills.
  • Use all the steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading) to strengthen your message.  

Friday, October 04, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 8: Sharing Your Writing

This tip sheet from the NCTE focuses on writers who are interested in sharing a piece of their writing for National Gallery of Writing as part of the NCTE-sponsored National Day of Writing. This thoughtful effort is great idea for encouraging aspiring writers to produce a composition for an online archive.

But the reference, "Selecting Writing to Share with Others," is helpful for all kinds of writers: those who need to get out a proposal or report in a short time frame at work; those who want to publish an op-ed in the newspaper; or those who hope to create a poem, story, or essay for a periodical. It makes three memorable points that I use when urging writing students to keep at it:
  • Writing ideas are everywhere: in your complaint letter to the credit card company, in your email explaining an unusual experience to a friend, in your conversation with a coworker about your last vacation, and in even your walk to the office.
  • If you think it's a good enough piece of writing for you to save, then it's good enough for you to perfect and to share with the world.
  • Sharing your writing with others gives deep insights not only into the quality of your writing but into the kind of person you want others to see in you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 7: Polishing Your Drafts



The NCTE recommends four ways to polish your writing in this skill brief. Two of them bear special focus.

The first one, reading your drafts aloud, will help you to pick up awkward phrasing, poor word choice, redundancies, and overlooked errors in grammar or punctuation. I have used this approach when coaching writers ranging in age from 18 to 80, from education levels of high school graduate to post-doctoral fellow, from scores of fields and from hundreds of companies--and it always works.

The third one, imagining your readers, is easier than you might think. Pretend you are in a dialogue with them. So let's say the first sentence of a proposal to your boss says, "I need a laptop." 
What would your boss ask? "Why?" Now that first sentence would say, "I need a laptop to be more productive when I am in the field."

Then your boss might ask, "How often are you in the field?" or "How can you be more productive in the field?" Now you would write, "Using a laptop during my 12 hours in the field each week will help me produce my investigative reports more efficiently." 

Then your boss would probably ask questions such as "How many investigative reports do you write weekly? How backlogged are you in writing these reports? Can you get help writing these reports in some other way? How much does the laptop cost?" You get the idea: write to your reader.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 6: Overcoming Writing Inefficiencies

The NCTE tips on overcoming writer's block are practical for writers of any stripe. When facing deadlines under pressure, I have used three of these techniques to excellent results (making a list, taking a break, and giving yourself a direction). 

Free-writing is another proven practice for breaking through writer's block that does not appear on the list but is especially useful for business writers. This practice expects of the writer quantity, not quality. Just write freely, producing words on the screen or page without the definite aim of a perfect draft. In other words, you might try writing the first draft with your heart and then the second draft with your head.

Another strategy that I mentioned in previous WORDS ON THE LINE posts is reading. Nothing inspires me to write more than reading writers whose style I admire. So when I'm stuck at the keyboard, I walk away and pick up an essayist like James Baldwin or Joan Didion, a novelist like Nikos Kazantzakis or John Steinbeck, a playwright like Yasmina Reza or Sam Shepard, or a poet like Stephen Dunn or Gabriela Mistral. Whoever your favorites are, use them when you need them most.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 5: Organizing Your Ideas

Structure rules. This key maxim drives most of The Art of E-mail Writing, which thousands of business writers have used to ensure that their messages are purposeful, complete, and organized. All the command of language in the world is useless without good structure. 

"Organizing Your Writing," a skill brief from the NCTE, covers five time-tested organizing techniques that you are likely to use in your daily on-the-job writing. Especially helpful are the links explaining organization types and organization strategies in greater depth.

By starting with these resources, you can go even deeper into structuring ideas. For instance, you might divide the pattern of organizing by comparison into similarities-differences or advantages-disadvantages.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 4: Understanding Your Audience


Without understanding your audience, you might as well forget your purpose and give up writing. You run a far greater chance of crafting a winning proposal, comprehensive report, or compelling position paper by including audience analysis as a routine part of planning complex messages. 

The helpful hints in the NCTE's tip sheet "Connecting with Your Audience" reinforce this point and list four important considerations for writing to your reader. The excellent references at the end of the brief from Colorado State University and the University of North Carolina dig deeper into audience assessment.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 3: Getting Started



Often writing teachers speak more in theoretical than practical terms when advising writing students to get creative. In our defense, we do not want to both lead the horse to water and then pour the water down the horse's throat. We hope to give students an opportunity to discover ideas on their own.

For those who demand specific, workable suggestions on how to get started, there's always the tip sheet "Beginning a Piece of Writing" from the NCTE. While some of the 10 tips are specific to fiction writers, others are useful to proposal or report writers. Among them are to get started with:

  • a shocking or interesting fact
  • intentional fragments or repetition
  • a question
  • dialogue
  • the problem
  • a quote from another source

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 2: Finding a Helpful Writing Process

Having a workable writing process is vital. I am not talking about what you write but how you write. This is an area where even strong writers may falter. The idea is to write ideas quickly at first and to refine those ideas later. 

The NCTE's second writing tip sheet, Finding the Writing Process That Works for You, summarizes points to consider about the writing process. The premise of the pages is that no one writing process will work for everyone, so you need to find a system that works for you. Several good tips appear on the sheet to help you jumpstart that challenging essay, proposal, or report. You will find especially interesting the observations and advice in the reference section at the end, including in "Isabelle Allende Loves the Writing Process" and Michael Becker's article "The Writing Process."

Friday, September 06, 2013

Writing Tips from NCTE, Part 1: Choosing a Topic



I have mentioned in previous posts the value that the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) brings to developing writers. The organization, composed primarily of English teachers from the middle school to university levels, offers an excellent library of resources to cultivate writing skills.

One particularly useful series of writing guidance appears in the form of 10 single-page PDF files. I will summarize these already concise tip sheets and add a supporting observation of my own over these next 10 WORDS ON THE LINE posts. 

The first sheet, Determining What to Write About, provides good suggestions for breaking through writer's block by generating ideas. Nothing is as intimidating to writers as that moment when they cannot get started or fail to process their ideas efficiently. This is such a big issue that I wrote an entire book about it: How to Write Fast Under Pressure.

Of the 10 strategies listed in the bullet points of the article, the one that has always worked for me is "Read, read, readall great authors are readers who constantly look for ideas from other authors." I find inspiration in reading nearly anything. Reading the poetry of Stephen Dunn makes me want to write poetry, reading the drama of Sam Shepard gets me started in writing dialogues, reading the fiction of Nikos Kazantzakis helps me recall interesting yarns from my own experience, and reading the essays of James Baldwin pushes me to finish an essay.

For more ideas on choosing what to write about, check out the helpful link at the conclusion of the NCTE post.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Using Bullet Points Effectively, Part 4:Keeping Lists Consistent

Parallel structure is the grouping of like grammatical or conceptual terms in the same word or phrasing pattern. Parallel structure shows up in all sorts of situations, including lists. Using parallel structure achieves clarity and conciseness. 

In this first example, the nonparallel list is typical of first draft thinking:

You possess three qualities:

  • You work hard
  • A loyal attitude
  • Your donations to charitable organization
The problem with the list is that none of the items is a quality, as the lead-in sentence requires. A good, parallel rewrite appears in this second draft:

You possess three great qualities:

  • diligence
  • loyalty
  • generosity
In this next example, the list requires beginning each point with an action, but the writer fails to create this consistency:

The user must perform these safety measures: 

  1. Wear personal protective equipment.
  2. safety-rated tools.
  3. The circuit breaker must be turned off.
  4. Grounding the wires is imperative.
This second draft uses parallel structure to clearly indicate the required tasks:

The user must perform these safety measures:
  1. Wear personal protective equipment.
  2. Use safety-rated tools.
  3. Turn off the circuit breaker.
  4. Ground the wires.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Using Bullet Points Effectively, Part 3: Leading into Lists



Lead into lists by either of two methods: with a complete sentence including a key word or phrase, or with a fragment that each listed item can complete as a sentence. The two examples below convey similar information but vary in their approach to the content.

SENTENCE LEAD-IN

Before leaving Conference Room 1, please attend to the following security precautions:
  1. Set the alarm.
  2. Lock the door.
  3. Text Security, X3579 the message “CR 1 secure.”
FRAGMENT LEAD-IN

Before leaving Conference Room 1, please:
  1. Set the alarm.
  2. Lock the door.
  3. Text Security, X3579 the message “CR 1 secure.”


The key phrase security precautions, may bring clarity to an unfamiliar reader, but it also may be too obvious for a reader more familiar with the process. Base the one you choose on your readers' knowledge and your relationship them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Using Bullet Points Effectively, Part 2: Bullets or Numbers?



When listing, the two common choices are bulleted or numbered points. (Lettered points are too academic for most people’s tastes.)

We bullet for one reason only: to show equality among the listed points. In the example below, the writer list the three points in order of increasing importance, but by bulleting those points, she implies that her listed reasons are of equal importance:

The directors chose Ambreen as a tax consultant for three reasons:
  • vast contacts on Capitol Hill
  • exceptional experience in international law
  • proven case record in the securities industry

We number for any of three reasons: to show priority, sequence, or reference. In this first example, the writer lets her readers know in the lead-in sentence that the numbered points appear in descending order of importance:

Ambreen recommends three precautionary measures, in preferential order:
  • Insure the property for $5 million.
  • Install burglar alarms at all external entrances and internal offices on the third floor.
  • Assign a security guard to the property 24/7.


In this next example, the writer informs the reader with the word steps that she is following a chronological order:

To obtain a security pass, Ambreen must follow these steps:
  1. Apply to IT Security for clearance.
  2. Create a temporary ID on our intranet.
  3. Request a permanent ID upon her first arrival in our office.


In this final example, the writer uses numbers because she and her reader will refer to the points by item number:

Ambreen will complete the following documents:
  1. Form 5500-EZ
  2. 1040 tax return
  3. NYC Form 202 exceptional experience in international law
Item 1 is due by December 31, and Items 2 and 3 are due by April 15.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Using Bullet Points Effectively, Part 1: Listing Those Ands

A senior executive of a corporation once told me that she directed her associates to write in traditional paragraph form and to avoid using bullet points since they do not know how to use them. She was right about her staff composing illogical, unclear, inconsistent, or wordy bullet points; however, she was wrong in depriving them of this useful business tool for two reasons:
  • They probably would not know how to write effective paragraphs if they do not know how to use bullet points.
  • They can use bullet points to highlight key ideas for their readers.
In this and the next three posts, I will cover techniques for effectively using bullet points. Let’s start with why bullet points are so helpful by contrasting a traditional paragraph with a bullet list.

PARAGRAPH VERSION (55 words)

We are deferring our decision to terminate the consultant’s contract for three reasons. First, the new XYZ contract requires her technical skills, which no one in our team has. Also, she has deep experience in working with XYZ. In addition, we will be short-staffed when the XYZ contract begins in July because of vacation schedules.

BULLETED VERSION (25 words)

We are deferring our decision to terminate the consultant’s contract for three reasons:
·         unmatched technical skills
·         deep XYZ experience
·         complete July availability

You might argue that the bulleted version omitted important detail from the paragraph version (i.e., the consultant’s technical skills are unmatched only on our team, and many of our staff will be on vacation in July). I would have no argument with this point. Nevertheless, the key information is easy to capture in the bullet list, and the bulleted word count is less than half that of the paragraph.

The point to remember here is that when you catch yourself using a bunch of words like and, also, in addition, and finally, you probably have an opportunity to list ideas, which will help them stand out. So list those ands.

Friday, August 02, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Philosopher's Toolkit

Chances are that for any viewpoint we take or for any choice we make, the spirit philosopher is not far away, saying, “Been there, done that.” As original as we like to think ourselves, our predecessors have figured out—or have certified that none of us can possibly figure out—the hidden meaning of our experiences, motives, and conduct.


That’s what makes reading Julian Baggini’s and Peter S. Fosl’s The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods so engaging. The authors have thoughtfully organized this book to serve as both a brief history of philosophy for students of Western thought or as a user's manual for decision-makers working through complex philosophical theories and strategies that have guided writers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, rulers, and business people for more than two millennia. According to The Philosopher's Toolkit, the "tools" for analyzing problems and deciding on fundamental issues are there for the taking, from deduction and induction to refutation, categorizing, synthesizing, and critiquing. This book explains the foundations of our reasoning, without overstating their value or bypassing their limitations, with clear definitions, practical examples, and useful suggestions for their application.


Baggini and Fosl succeed in concisely detailing the depth of philosophical staples such as empiricists' skepticism, Ockham's razor, and Kant's categorical imperative, which are more complex than they seem; similarly, they clarify complicated terms such as a priori/a posteriori experiences, the Heideggerian critique of metaphysics, and the Foucaultian critique of power, all of which generally require more than a surface reading to grasp their essence.


If you feel that arguments all too often are baseless, unreasonable, and inconclusive, you will discover why and how to counter them in The Philosopher's Toolkit.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Thought on Writing Instruction



"We need to align our instruction more closely with the tasks students face when composing and reading, by including practice in analyzing relationships between words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, and the work as a whole." from "How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking, and Writing: A Method That Works" by Lynn Sams (English Journal, January 2003). Embedded in this quote is the notion that the process of writing is laden with grammatical rules, that better we know the structure of a language, the better we will master writing. 

I agree, but with two caveats. First, for work-related writing, we need to know our job and the concerns of our readers about our job before all else. Then, of course, we need to know how to write to those readers. Second, I do not take Sams's  comment to mean that analyzing syntactic relationships among parts of speech and sentences is the only way to learn writing. Combinations of whole language and in-context instruction as well as whole language and phonics, can also work.

Nevertheless, understanding the grammatical structure of language does help good writers in creating paragraph emphasis, sentence variety, suspenseful sentences, and interesting word choice.  You can read more about this article and other ideas about writing instruction at the National Council of Teachers of English website.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Struggling with Words, Part 5: Preventive or Preventative?

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on commonly confused words.]

When suggesting to writers that they use preventive rather than preventative, some will argue with me by saying that if preventative is in the dictionary, then it's a word. 

The argument should not be over whether a word is in the dictionary. Starting with vulgarities, we wouldn't use many words appearing in the dictionary. So the argument should be whether a word is acceptable in your company or industry. I just found preventative in Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary.com, but they all preferred preventive. The simpler word will nearly always be the better choice.