Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Don't Judge a Banana by Its Cover

Check out that banana. Before today, if that were your only banana and you offered it to me—and if I were really hungry—I'd politely decline your gracious offer. I would have decided based on the assumption that I know a good banana when I see one. My experience over six-plus decades told me that bananas ripen from green (ugh) to yellow (uh) to traces of brown (yum) to full brown (oh-no) to black (yuk), but they are not quite right if they evolve into a weird mix of forget-me-not green, barely yellow, and specks of brown. You can keep your banana, thank you.

But I've been reading a lot of books lately that have confirmed my conviction to argue with my own data: Hans Rosling's Factfulness, Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now, and Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project, all worthwhile reads. I have always been skeptical about data, a disposition I regularly urge my students to take. I tell them to see not only both sides of an argument but multiple ones. Such thinking may reverse their opinions, strengthen some they already have, and maybe even create new ones. Then how could I not accept your banana?

Realizing my hypocrisy, I peeled the banana and took a bite. It was delightfully delicious, and I was decidedly wrong in my banana analytics. After devouring that banana in seconds, I realized the need to reinvent my entire banana hue spectrum. Of course, I won't go monochromatic in choosing bananas, but I'll have to add more data to my choosing, such as their feel and smell. What a world I've opened to myself!

Come on, you know you've been wrong about your data too. Can you think of an instance? Keep analyzing in all you do at work, school, home, and playground.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 8: Starting and Ending Positive

In the previous post of this WORDS ON THE LINE series on tone, I noted that the tone of a written message improves when following but with a positive thought, not a negative one. Of course, we would do well to  avoid the negative altogether.

So little can you do to offset starting a message with a negative tone. That's a sure way of having it disregarded by most of your readers most of the time, even when ending on a positive note. In fact, they'll likely not get to the positive part. Kicking off a message with "You wrote three glaring errors on your report" or "You made two blunders during the staff meeting" usually sets up a combative situation between writer and reader.  

Writing with a positive opening and a negative ending also has its troubles. Beginning with "I hope you're have a nice day" only to conclude with "I expect you to correct these problems immediately" will surely be seen a insincere or thoughtless at best and sarcastic or belligerent at worst. 

The best bet is to start and end on positive notes when you want the message to be read in a positive way. So the aim would be to open with "This is the way we would like you to do it" rather than "Don't do it that way," or to close with "I know you'll get this done on time and with quality" rather than "Don't be late and don't make mistakes." Tone matters as much a purpose.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 7: Watching Your "But"

We all know what's going on in the mind of the insincere communicator who says, "I agree with you, but," or "You did a good job, but." They really don't agree with us, and they actually think we did a bad job. We especially see through such disingenuous expressions in writing, since we assume writers took the time to craft their point.

But they either don't always take the time to reflect on their readers' feelings, and even if they do, they might not have the same writing awareness as they do reading awareness. So here are three tips for watching your but if tone matters to you.


1. Explain your positives. Instead of writing, "I agree with your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York, but it's too expensive," describe why you agree—or don't write that you agree. Let's see how both would work.


If you agree with reservations, you might write:
I believe your proposal to move our office to New York makes sense for three reasons: 1) it will give us greater visibility in one of the most important financial centers in the world; 2) it will give us greater access to more prospective clients; and 3) it will expand our talent pool selection. For these reasons, we need to do a cost analysis of these potential gains against the moving and increased rental expenses.
If you simply disagree, you might write: 
Your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York is too expensive, as it will cost us $109,000 in moving expenses and an annual rent increase of $531,000.
2. Replace but with so. Most times, finding another word for but is a no-brainer. And I don't mean however, which is just a fancier but, implying the same meaningOne I commonly use is so. Examples:
Replace "Your report was on schedule, but I found two mistakes" with "Your report was on schedule, so we have time to fix two mistakes in it." 
Instead of  "Your presentation is credible, but your conclusion isn't focused," write "Your presentation is credible, so you'll want to revise your conclusion to better focus your audience.
3. Use but after negatives, not positives. Decide which of these two sentences has a better tone:

  • You handled that difficult client well, but you could have offered him another choice. 
  • You could have offer that difficult client another choice, but you handled him well.

If you think the second one is an improvement, as I do, then you'll want to end on a positive note by placing but after the negative, not the positive point. 
   

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 6: Knowing When to Send

It's all in the timing. Sometimes readers might get annoyed by a written message only because of when they receive it. Ill-timed emails and handwritten notes can escalate workplace tensions, so we would do well to avoid becoming the agent of tension tightening, fury fueling, or party-pooping.

Before sending a message, we should consider not only whether we should put something in writing but when we should. An email requesting help five minutes before the end of the business day might not be as thoughtful as at the top of the next business morning. A message counseling a staff member for making erring near a project deadline might work better when the pressure simmers upon project completion. Also, we might wait for the dust to settle in a misunderstanding between two associates before we fire off a note explaining our expectations for their future conduct. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 5: Knowing Whether to Send

One of the best lessons a business writer can learn is this: some things should not be put in writing. If you are reading this, you surely can think of a time when an email irritated you. Maybe the writer merely needed to give you instructions or a simple heads up, but the inappropriate tone derailed the business purpose. With this thought in mind, keep these three tips close in mind to guard against falling into a tone trap:

1. Do not send the message if you know you're upset. Use means other than writing to resolve a heated issue.

2. Remember annoyance, belligerence, condescension, and sarcasm never belong in work-related writingEven the most skilled writers run the risk of stoking the rising flames when sending an email in a tone-sensitive situation.

3. Take the high road. If you can't find a way of directly getting to the business point, then back off and do something else. Return to it later and, bingo, you'll figure it out.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 4: Checking Your Tone

We now have a definition of tone, an understanding about the risks of a bad tone, and knowledge of the influences on tone. So here are four good ways of checking your tone:

1. Allow a cooling-off period. If a message, business situation, or reader annoys, angers, or astounds you for any reason, realize that your tone might reflect that emotion. Nearly everyone I talk to on this point agrees: The heat of the moment chills over time. Sometimes walking away may help you determine an appropriate response. Other times, you might return to the message to see it's not as big a deal as you first thought. 

2. Read the message with your purpose in mind. Every work-related message has a business purpose, whether it is a transmission of information your reader needs to know or a call to action. That purpose might be about complying with a policy, changing a procedure, relaying lab findings, relating a root cause of an incident, or requesting resources, among many others. Sticking to that point will keep you in a politically safer, all-business state.  

3. Look at the message from your reader's viewpoint. We've heard the wise expressions, "see it through my eyes" and "walk a mile in my shoes." Truer words are hard to find. We all have feelings: kick us and we scream, punch us and we cry, scratch us and we bleed. Hurting feelings is unprofessional conduct. If we remember point 2 above, then getting even, firing off a zinger, or delivering a nastygram have no place in business communication. And seeing your message from your reader's viewpoint is easier than you might admit, because you know what's motivating you is your own upset.

4. Ask a trusted associate to read the message for tone. Here's another piece of timeless wisdom to which most experienced, sensible people subscribe. Buddies removed from the emotions of the situation will tell you straight out whether they detect a tone problem. Defer to their judgment. It might not be infallible, but it's better than yours in the swirl of a dramatic moment.   

Monday, July 09, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 3: Understanding the Influences on Tone

With a definition of tone and an understanding of the risks of a bad tone, we should look at the many factors affecting it. I'll mention five of them here, and I'm sure you'll come up with some of your own after reading this post.

1. The message you are sending. Let's face it: some news is bad no matter how you spin it. You fire someone, or you tell a good employee that she did not get that coveted promotion, or you establish a company-wide pay freeze, or you announce the death of a beloved employee. A little bit of simpatico would not hurt in these situations. Expressions such as "We're sorry that ..." or "Unfortunately" may seem hollow, but they're better than nothing. The best approach is an entire paragraph connecting yourself to your readers, showing that you understand the affect your announcement has on them.

2. The writer's attitude. Sometimes you may feel a situation is urgent, so you express the message accordingly. But your readers may not see the situation with the same level of urgency. They're too busy dealing with their own concerns to pay any attention to yours. If you are sufficiently sensitive to see these situations, you'll write in kind. 

3. The reader's attitude. Sometimes readers see situations differently from you. They might not want to donate to your favorite charity because it doesn't align with their values or because they ardently give to their own causes, which your organization may not directly support. Perhaps they don't prize your call to action about a safety best practice because they don't get how it will keep them out of harm's way. Or maybe they don't buy into something you're suggesting simply because you are the one suggesting it. They don't know you well enough, or they don't value your position, or they don't like you. It's possible. Maybe in such cases you'll need to invoke a higher authority with openers like, "On behalf of the  CEO," if you can get away with it. 

4. Your personal culture. Think about what matters most to you. Wisdom means a lot to me; I buy into people I consider wise. Of course, I don't do so blindly, but their opinions matter to me. Yet many people I write to believe honesty supersedes all else, so I will not impress them with the latest review of literature or with a snippet from a New York Times op-ed piece. Try to remember that the next time you write someone about something that matters a lot to you but maybe not to them.


5. Your corporate culture. Regardless of our values, inclinations, and behaviors, we are beholden to the our organization. Even though mine is a one-person organization, I try to maintain a party line when I communicate on behalf of my business. Believe it or not, my business attitude does not always reflect my personal one. For an innocuous example, I don't like neckties, but I mostly wear them when meeting clients. You do the same, no doubt. Think about the differences in your own style and your organization's style. Then see how well you accommodate the style of the people who show you the money.

Since so much is at stake when we write in tone-sensitive situations, it makes sense for us to consider ways to check our tone in the next WORDS ON THE LINE post. 


Monday, July 02, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: We’re Not As Bad As All That


Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Ann Rosling Rönnlund (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018)

The paradigm-shifting ideas in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness emerge rarely in one’s lifetime. It’s one of the books you might borrow from the library because of the great things you’ve heard about it, then renew the loan since you want to reread the author’s well-reasoned conclusions from irrefutable data, and ultimately decide it’s worth owning as you’ll find the sage’s arguments useful whenever you might find yourself in a squabble over issues of healthcare advancements, global education, social inequality, or human progress.

Rosling fans familiar with his legendary TED talks know how passionate he was about his subject matter before his untimely death, which preceded the publication of this book. Factfulness works on multiple levels. It can be read as a self-test of one’s comprehension of the general welfare of our planet; as a clearinghouse for worldwide social, economic, educational, and medical trends; as a guide to research on historical human progress; as an applied means of understanding where people and nations fit in income levels (mixed), improvements (high), and world knowledge (abysmally low); and as an autobiography of Rosling’s illustrious career as a physician, researcher, and teacher in places as remote as the African outback and hallowed as the Karolinska Institutet, as well as an engaging presenter on the most prestigious stages in international affairs.  

Rosling was neither liberal nor conservative, but he surely was practical. Factfulness cogently explains why nearly everyone distorts the facts. Nuclear power activists espouse hypocritical and short-sighted agendas. International relief organizations misrepresent statistics on poverty. Journalists report an exaggerated story of the world we live in. Politicians cherry pick to drive self-serving legislation. And we—the guiltiest party—hold on to ten undeniable illusions that paint for us an outdated, unrealistic picture of how things really are. No one knows this better than Rosling himself, who on at least three occasions in the book admits that even he blindly clutched romanticized ideas of the human condition. His delusions triggered wrongheaded decisions that caused a loss of human life.

The ten collective and destructive instincts we share, Rosling argues, make us see the world not as it is but as it was. By pointing out these misjudgments and offering commonsense antidotes to them, Rosling delivers in his magnum opus a veritable manual for perceiving the planet we share, and an indispensable resource in changing only those parts of the world that need changing—starting with our own ignorance.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: Knowing When to Say When

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink (New York: Random House/ Riverhead, 2018)

Duke Ellington, the American composer, bandleader, and pianist whose astounding productivity was exceeded only by his prodigious talent, once said, “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” Daniel H. Pink gives us plenty of reasons to believe in that wisdom. The author of the excellent, best-selling A Whole New Mind posits in his latest book that we begin most things with a bang and end them with an explosion, but somewhere in that interminable middle is a monotonous muddle. That midpoint of our day, week, month, year, education, project, job, romantic relationship, or lifetime constitutes an inevitable ennui, a time when we should take care not to assume we are operating at our greatest gusto, fullest faculties, or peak performance.

Pink notes early in When that this is a book about timing. He infers from numerous studies that our optimal time of enjoyment, alertness, and accomplishment is most likely to be anytime but at halftime, when a break would serve us better than anything else. He then suggests practices for everyday life to heighten awareness, mitigate malaise, and reverse bad habits. If you like the structure of Pink’s books—as I do—you will find When a quick read full of interesting curiosities and useful tips that may improve your approach to work and maximize your output.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 2: Knowing the Risks of a Bad Tone

Now that we have a definition of tone, let's look at the risks of writing in a bad bad tone by reading the list in the illustration from the bottom up.

1. Your message is ignored. At best, really, the offended party will simply avoid returning the message, regardless of its business purpose.

2. An email war begins. Worse, the recipient may fire back a nastygram, beginning a pointless, venomous war of words. 

3. The work is not done. Meanwhile, the warring factions are concerning themselves with the rise in their blood pressure and the cruelty of their retaliatory responses rather than focusing on their jobs.  

4. Your message is forwarded. These matters don't stay private for long. Sooner or later, the entire office knows about such petty, lingering linguistic skirmishes. 

5. Management intervenes. Now management has to divert attention from the business to chastise or counsel the quibblers. Such interventions can include meetings, follow-up documentation, and maybe official proceedings, all because two people could not  maintain their professionalism.

6. Your job evaluation suffers. The incident has just given the manager something new to write about on the offender's employee appraisal. The issue doesn't just disappear. It could even cost someone a raise or promotion.

7. You lose your job. It has happened. Often, people are fired when management perceives them to be naysayers, complainers, thin-skinned, or rabble-rousers—perceptions whose seeds were planted by the email with the problematic tone.  

8. Your reputation is damaged. It doesn't stop there. These diatribes grow into the stuff of legend, extending beyond the department, company, and even field, irrespective of the magnitude of the organizational culture.  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 1: Defining Tone

This post is the first in a series on tone in business writing. I begin with four posts on theory, including this one. This one defines tone in writing, the next describes the risks of writing in a bad tone, the third explores influences on tone, and the final lists general practices for checking tone. The ten posts following these introductory ones present practical strategic tips for creating, improving, or maintaining a reader-centered tone.

What is tone?
The tone is the writer's underlying attitude that the reader infers from the message. What writers think about their own tone is insufficient. An employee might succeed in conveying a gracious tone to 11 of her 12 teammates, but the other one might find her tone to be ingratiating. A vendor might believe his emails appear focused to his clients, but some of them might actually find him to be demanding. A manager wants to seem confident to his staff of 40, but half of them might feel he is pompous and the other half strident. Indeed, most people read tone in their own special way, and most usually don't doubt their assumptions. They are certain that they're reading the writer's tone correctly.

Why is tone so important in writing?
Purposefulnesshaving a point, getting to it, and sticking to it—is paramount in business writing. But tone is a close second. At the least, people might ignore the simplest of email requests because they perceive a caustic tone in the requester. 

How can a bad tone prove worse than the work not getting done? The next post will explain.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elmore Leonard's Tips on Writing

Elmore Leonard was a fiction writer and a wise guy. Many of his best-selling fiction novels became major motion pictures. His top ten tips on writing—and a surprising eleventh—appear in The New York Times article, "Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle".

Enjoy his tongue-in-cheek approach, but take his suggestions seriously if you want to succeed as a writer. This essay is definitely worth a read.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Will Handwriting Disappear?

Many people are lamenting the disappearing act of teaching cursive writing in schools. Even teaching print is declining in deference to the Common Core standard of teaching typewriting. Those who dread this change argue that a deep connection exists between handwriting and cognitive skills development. 

I have always been skeptical about this claim, because typewriting also helps develop cognitive skills. In a New York Times opinion piece, author Anne Trubek doesn't think this evolution will harm childhood education. 

Should handwriting be left to museums and libraries solely for scholarly analysis  of future generations like Ancient Greek and Latin?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Getting to the Point: Two Angles

What do people mean when they say they want their work-related writing to get to the point? Do they want to state an idea in the fewest possible words while maintaining syntactic control of the sentence (conciseness)? Or do they want their message to start with the central point (purposefulness)? I hope they mean both but with a bias toward the latter. Let's look at examples of each.

Conciseness: Expressing in the Fewest Possible Words
Assume a message starts with the following central point:
Wordy (31 words): In order for us to achieve substantial completion by the due date for Project XYZ, I recommend that the firm consider hiring an additional worksite supervisor no later than June 1.
The 21-word sentence below keeps the meaning of the wordier original. It eliminates the unnecessary or wordy prepositional phrases In order, for us, and by the due date, the weak hedge verb consider, the egocentric I recommend, and the overwrought phrase no later than. Incidentally, we cannot eliminate substantial because substantial completion means something contractually different from total completion. At 43% fewer words, this sentence is preferable: 
Concise (21 words): To achieve on-time substantial completion for Project XYZ, the firm should hire an additional worksite supervisor by June 1.
Purposefulness: Starting with the Central Point
But writing to the point is much more than writing in the fewest possible words. It requires an audience focus. Two ideas emerge in this example:

  • the to, or, reader benefit – To achieve on-time substantial completion for Project XYZ
  • the do, or, writer expectation – the firm should hire an additional worksite supervisor by June 1.
Depending on our audience, we can write the sentence two ways, starting with the more deferential reader benefit or with the more assertive writer expectation:

  • Deferential (16 words): The firm will achieve on-time substantial completion by hiring an additional worksite supervisor by Jane 1.
  • Assertive (13 words): Hiring an additional worksite supervisor by June 1 will achieve on-time substantial completion.

Either way we are writing to the point. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction

So you've been taught not to begin a sentence with a conjunction? Well i just did. Your teachers were wrong. Here are sentences over seven decades from authors who write infinitely better than whoever taught you such nonsense:
And is not this among them? – Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1935
Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1935
And the reference of modernism brings us back to the question of the past and the present. – Robert Penn Warren, "Cowley's Faulkner", 1946
But the motiveless murder of a man would truly raise the issue of probability. – Robert Penn Warren, "A Poem of Pure Imagination", 1946
So Frederick, by a decision, does what the boy Nick does as the result of the accident of a wound. – Robert Penn Warren, "Hemingway", 1947
But maybe the  worst was something I learned only a few months ago. Joan Didion, Miami, 1987
Nor was the developed 15 percent of the property, Jordan Downs itself, the problem it might have seemed at first glance. – Joan Didion, After Henry, 1992
But many people believed Los Angeles to be different, and in one significant aspect it was: the difference in Los Angeles was that very few of its citizens seemed to notice the small perfect deals, or, if they did notice, to much care. – Joan Didion, After Henry, 1992
And so is Tolstoy. – Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
But Kafka was not a saint or a mystic; he is rightly not included in Aldous Huxley's beautiful if idealizing anthology, The Perennial Philosophy– Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
Or does Goethe invest himself in the next philosopher-poet, Nereus, who preaches renunciation yet still employs the accents of Eros. – Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994
And speaking of panics, what do you think are the greatest threats to the human species? – Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
But apocalyptic thinking has serious downsides. – Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
Nor are the the computational and neurobiological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling. Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018 
Case closed.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Beginning a Sentence with a Verb

Start sentences with verbs from time to time. To write well, use various openings. Should you rely on the rules of pseudo-grammarians, your writing will stagnate. Are you understanding me?

The four sentences above all begin with verbs, a perfectly acceptable technique. I raise this point because a student in one of my recent writing classes proclaimed, "You can't begin a sentence with a verb." She was wrong. Writers far greater than you or I have done so. I corrected her with examples like the ones in the first paragraphPen and the Pad expertly discusses this point in detail.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Documentation Help Available at INSTRKTIV

Business and technical writers continually experience the challenge of creating understandable, reliable documentation standards for readers in their organization and across their industry. INSTRKTIV proposes to be a game changer in this endeavor by offering support in developing documents, such as user manuals, help files, procedures, and video instructions.

The advice this global organization renders on its website alone is legion. For instance, INSTRKTIV Director Ferry Vermeulen recently published "Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts (2018 Update)". The article and video  provides insights from 80 industry experts responding to a question about their preferred technical writing tools. Hearing and reading about their responses will set newcomers to the field on the right course toward achieving writing proficiency. It will also validate the mindset of seasoned technical writers while offering them a fresh perspective in sharpening their craft.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 20: Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, historian, and critic, among other roles, remains a controversial figure long after his death at age 97 nearly half a century ago. One inarguable point about the 1950 Nobel laureate in literature, however, is his exceptionally exquisite yet accessible style. As a case in point, he begins his brief 1924 essay, "Life in the Middle Ages," with the prelude to his premise:
Our picture of the Middle Ages, perhaps more than that of other periods, has been falsified to suit our own prejudices. Sometimes the picture has been too black, sometimes too rosy.
He continues the paragraph by giving three romanticized historical viewpoints, one of unremitting barbarism, the second of knightly chivalry, and the third of ecclesiastical zeal. Then he starts his second paragraph with a concession:
In all these views there are elements of truth: the Middle Ages were rude, they were knightly, they were pious.
After acknowledging his literary forebears, Russell lays down his premise:
But if we wish to see a period truly, we must not see it contrasted with our own, whether to its advantage or disadvantage: we must try to see it as it was to those who lived in it. Above all, we must remember that, in every epoch, most people are ordinary people, concerned with their daily bread rather than with the great themes of which historians treat.
Russell uses many persuasive devices in this piece. He makes a startling claim in the first sentence, uses sensory language in the second sentence (black and rosy), offers a concession at the top of the second paragraph, makes a proposition in the following sentence, and doubles down on the proposition by issuing an admonishment in the next sentence. 

Writers wanting to write purposefully can count on more of the same in any of Russell's dozens of books, including A History of Western Philosophy, Religion and Science, The Problems of Philosophy, The Conquest of Happiness, and Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 19: Langston Hughes

In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which first appeared in The Nation (1926), Langston Hughes begins with this paragraph:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
What a start! Hughes dissects the young black poet's comments three times over. He follows with a statement that both pities and excoriates him. His third sentence condemns the young man to a future of artistic mediocrity. Then Hughes reverses course to set up the theme so aptly described in the essay title by asserting such compromises for an American black artist are inevitable or a Sisyphean fate awaits the one who remains true to his race.

Hughes immediately humanizes his essay by using a simple comment he once heard. Writers are always listening, always remembering something, always waiting for the right time to use it. So what matters here? It is Hughes's unsettling balance of detachment, sympathy, and rage that brings us into his narrative.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 18: Carl Sagan

Science author extraordinaire Carl Sagan wrote a thought-provoking essay “The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?” in Billions, and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (1997). He chooses to open it by painting a picture of the deceptively beautiful facade of polluting technologies:
There’s a certain moment at twilight when the aircraft contrails are pink. And if the sky is clear, their contrast with the surrounding blue is unexpectedly lovely. The Sun has already set and there’s a roseate glow at the horizon, a reminder of where the Sun is hiding. But the jet aircraft are so high up that they can still see the Sun—quite red, just before setting. The water blown out from their engines instantly condenses. At the frigid temperatures of high altitude, each engine trails as small, linear cloud, illuminated by the red rays of the setting Sun. 
The point Sagan makes with this vivid scene stays with us through the rest of the article as he grapples with difficult, human-made challenges facing our planet.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 17: Lewis Thomas

Physician and writer Lewis Thomas leads off his renowned essay "The Lives of a Cell," which appears in a 1974 essay collection of the same name, with these sentences:
We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits at the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsating legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet.
Thomas immediately sets a stage that we readers know he does not accept. By the next paragraph, he makes clear that "We are the delicate part" of the universe. In this and the other 29 essays in Lives of a Cell, Thomas humbles our egocentric worldview by emphasizing time and again how cells connect humans, animals, plants, and even the planet as a singular entity. He does so in the above two sentences by giving us a false sense of security that we are "pulsating" with life while all else around us is "writhing." In being set us by with this implausible scenario, we are eager to know how we should really be thinking.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 16: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once.
Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 essay "The Crack-Up," a self-examination of the author's encounter with regret, ambition, fame, failure, retreat, collapse, resignation, and recovery, which appeared as a three-part series in Esquire ("Part 1: The Crack-Up" in February, "Part 2: Pasting It Together" in March, and "Part 3: Handle with Care" in April). 

The opening hooks readers because of its surprisingly self-pitying vantage point: the outside blows destroy one's inside, and do so dramatically. The story shifts abruptly from location to confrontation to observation to reservation to hesitation to determination, but it does so with an elegance of expression that established Fitzgerald's literary reputation. If these are the meanderings of a man dealing with a crack-up, he renders them with a flair that few of his contemporaries shared. "The Crack-Up" is worth a read for anyone looking for ideas on how to write an autobiography.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 15: Walker Percy

Walker Percy's essay "New Orleans, Mon Amour" amounts to a philosophical love letter to the city that serves as the setting for his first and most famous novel, The Moviegoer. Percy imaginatively begins the article, which first appeared in Harper's (September 1968), with this paragraph:
If the American city does not go to hell in the next few years, it will not be the likes of Dallas or Grosse Point which will work its deliverance, or Berkeley or New Haven, or Santa Fe or La Jolla. But New Orleans might. Just as New Orleans hit upon jazz, the only unique American contribution to art, and hit upon it almost by accident and despite itself, it could also hit upon the way of the hell which has overtaken the American city. 
In the paragraphs that follow the opening, Percy gives every reason to believe that New Orleans will, in fact, be the first American city to go to hell. He stacks the intellectual deck so fiercely against his beloved city that a historically uniformed or linguistically careless reader might conclude The Big Easy is doomed to an abominable self-destruction. 

But not so. Percy was a lifelong resident of the Deep South, save a journey north to obtain a medical degree from Columbia University, practice medicine in New York City, and convalesce from tuberculous in Saranac Lake, New York. He cared deeply about New Orleans, writing about it in fiction and nonfiction. His admiration of the city despite its complexities, calamities, and perversities is legendary. You can read "New Orleans, Mon Amour" Percy's 1991 nonfiction collection Signposts in a Strange Land.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 14: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf begins her 1-page, 2-paragraph, 9-sentence, 334-word introduction to "The Common Reader" with this observation:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.
 In this brief piece, Woolf has only one point to make, subtle, complex, and profound though it be, and she uses 39 words, or 11 percent, of her message to directly quote her reference, Samuel Johnson, using it as a springboard for that point. If you want to know the Johnson's sentence, you'll have to read the first chapter of "The Common Reader" yourself.

What interests me is not so much Johnson's observation, but  Woolf's remarkable, circuitous 95-word final sentence, which serves as a nod to Johnson, a praise of literature, and an appreciation of us, the common reader. You can read "The Common Reader" here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 13: William Styron

Reading a William Styron essay is like meditating on a topic, the very objective a great writer hopes to achieve for readers. As a case in point, read these first two sentences of "An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald" (New York Review of Books, November 28, 1968):
It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire the most vehement personal reactions. They might be quite dead but their spirits remain somehow immortally fleshed, and we are capable of talking about them as we talk about devoted friends, or about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.
So what is Styron doing in these 58 words to keep us engaged?

1. He slips in slowly. Leading with the protracted 15-word It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire, instead of the more concise 5-word Great writers seem to inspire. In doing so, he shows a great reliance on his reputation, a confidence that we will read on regardless of how circuitous a path he sets for us. He also uses this marker language to get us into a reflective mood.

2. He hedges heftily. Words like perhaps, seem, quite, and somehow not only prevents an absolutist viewpoint, but adds a feeling of bewildered existentialism to the opening.

3. He shifts suddenly. The absolute most vehement shows a shifting in gears from the hedging that preceded it, keeping us in a state of surprise.

4. He ditches an unnecessary transition. Styron trusts that his readers know the sentences following the first one are examples of the first, so he doesn't need the useless for example to lead the second sentence.

5. He mixes in the mysterious. Styron's use of somehow in this context evokes the enigmatic nature of writers, baffling us about the inexplicable circumstances that make us react so viscerally to them.

6. He conjures metaphysical imagery. Words such as spirits, immortally, and fleshed elicit flashes of the divine.

7. He uses subtle humor. Before we can ever wonder what it might feels like to be quite dead, we laugh at the thought that he would place these words alongside each other.

8. He shifts person. Styron makes shifts frequently here, notably moving from they (the writers) to we (the readers), and from plural (devoted friends) to singular (a despised neighbor) advancing a conversational style, as if he is sitting on our couch talking to us.

9. He shows our sinister nature. Only when we lose our reason can our most vehement nature emerge, and only when we are at our conniving worst can we unload scornful remarks about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.

The essay is a worthwhile read not only for a great writer's provocative homage to another great writer but as a study of what makes good writing tick, and makes us readers tock.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 12: Maureen Dowd

I tirelessly tell people in my writing classes that they will find the right language, the appropriate grammar, the apt punctuation, once they have something to say. Writing well is not the application of any number of arbitrary grammar rules; rather, it is the imaginative relating of information. Once we have something to say, I tell students, readers will not dwell much on our syntax and diction because our content will compel them to turn the pages of our narrative until they reach our conclusion. We can achieve this effect by forcing people to think about any issue, no matter how common, from a new angle.

As a case in point, note how Maureen Dowd opens "The Hillary Effect," her New York Times op-ed piece (November 18, 2017): 
Would the war against preying on women be blazing so fiercely had Hillary Clinton been elected?
In the few words that follow this lead sentence, Dowd sharply criticizes both men and women, as well as Democrats and Republicans, for their blatant hypocrisy on the sexual harassment issue over the past two decades. 

I am impressed not by the evenhanded way that Dowd renders her trenchant commentary, for she has displayed this proclivity time and again throughout her years of writing for the Times. Rather, I was taken by her opening intriguing questions, which I had not considered until she raised them. And that, my friends, is what makes a a fine writer.


Thursday, March 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 11: Gore Vidal

"I particularly like New York on hot summer nights when all the ... uh, superfluous people are off the streets." Those were, I think, the first words Tennessee addressed to me; then the foggy blue eyes blinked, and a nervous chuckle filled the moment's silence before I said whatever I said.
This is the beginning sentence of "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and Earlier Self," Gore Vidal's essay mingling a review of Tennessee Williams's Memoirs with a gushing homage to one of America's greatest playwrights and a self-congratulatory treatment of his own literary achievements. Vidal serves up several rhetorical devices here:
  • He establishes Williams's sophistication by choosing particularly as opposed to especially or most.
  • He moves the reader along a bit quicker by dropping the comma between hot and summer, leaving hot to describe summer nights, and not to mean hot nights and summer nights.
  • He makes Williams appear simultaneously thoughtful and natural by including the ellipsis and filler (... uh). 
  • He creates an immediate enigma with superfluous, which both equivocates about the superfluous people in the speaker's disposition and conjures humorously ambiguous images of who the non-superfluous people are. 
  • He adds I think as a playful way of assuring his readers that he is taking literary license in directly quoting Williams.
  • He closes with before I said whatever I said as an uncharacteristically humble way of shedding more light on his subject and less on himself.
And now we want to read the rest of Vidal's essay.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 10: Joyce Carol Oates

So much happens in Joyce Carol Oates's sentences. Take these two from the first paragraph of her article "Kid Dynamite: Mike Tyson Is the Most Exciting Heavyweight Fighter Since Muhammad Ali" (Life, March 1987):
If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title from thirty-three-year-old Trevor Berbick, as he promised to do, he will become the youngest champion in the sport's recorded history. He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato, his boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, that he would one day break the record of another of D'Amato's prodigies, Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956.
Oates makes a lot of rhetorical choices with these 75 words. Here are just five of them:
  1. She writes long sentences (33 and 42 words). Forget about the so-called experts who tell us to limit sentence length to 15 words. They have not written enough to issue such an order, and if they have, they continually break their own rule. Oates's sentences are pretty.
  2. She uses a colloquial verb instead of a more formal one apparently befitting a writer of her stature. Oates writes If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title, instead of If Tyson wins or attains. But she is writing about the "sweet science" of boxing, which is loaded with hyperbole and slang. Ayn Rand admonishes writers to let their subject matter dictate their word choice.  
  3. She suspends the base clause of the first sentence by 21 words (he will become the youngest champion). Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and others created an Eight-Word Test, which basically says that a clear subject and verb should arrive no later than eight words into the sentence. Those authors violate the very tip they endorse in their explanation of it. Oates is fearless in letting 21 words pass before her subject; she correctly trusts her readers can follow her narrative. 
  4. She gives possession to a nonliving thing (sport's recorded history). Narrow-minded grammar snobs will tell us that we can give possession only to people and animals, but not to inanimate objects. They would tell Oates to write the recorded history of the sport, but this is why she is a great writer and they are narrow-minded grammar snobs.
  5. She uses 33 words of that second 42-word sentence simply to qualify D'Amato's prediction. She suspends the sentence at mid point to add greater value to Cus D'Amato, not only as a foreseer but as a force in Tyson's life. Of course, Oates could have written, "He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato that he would one day break the record Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956. D'Amato is Tyson's boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, and Patterson is another of D'Amato's prodigies." But now we have a longer 45 words in 2 sentences and a sequencing problem that slows down the narrative line. Her sentence shines in its depiction of history and human relationship.
If you want to develop your writing skills, study the sentences of Joyce Carol Oates, who has her singular way of starting with what matters.