If you want to…
- write joyfully and efficiently, and
- write in a way that is readable, informative, and engaging, and that supports your brand
…you do not need mastery of the English language and its mechanics. You don’t even have to know how to spell. (If you are, however, hopeless when it comes to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and such, you probably need a good editor.)
Write for a better world
To write well requires five things:
- a clear purpose
- an honest message
- respect for the reader or audience
- respect for the language
- enjoyment of the task
Writing becomes an act of war…
- when writing is an ordeal, a burden, or a bore
- when the writing distances readers and hearers—through boredom, obfuscation, or intimidation
Obfuscation is not a well-known word, but it is the best term for “lack of clarity” when the murkiness is deliberate. Dictionary.com defines obfuscation as “making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand.” Wikipedia takes it a bit deeper: “the willful obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language.” Think Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”
Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory.
When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.* “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.
You will hate writing it you make it about “the rules”—grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling. Instead, first communicate with respect; then enjoy the motion—rhythm, flow, and cadence. The best way to learn these traits is by reading good writing and experimenting with them in your own writing.
The habit of helping
All writers would do well to cultivate the habit of curiosity, particularly when the object is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or energize a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”
Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 do unto you.”
And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you need to use your turn signal if yours is the only car in the intersection or if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. Is it really necessary to signal a turn if nobody’s watching, or if it’s obvious that you’re turning? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a hardship to press down on the turn-signal lever. Making a habit of something sets you free from the need to make a decision. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might or might not be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?
Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.
Studies consistently show that human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. —fastcompany.com
When smart people can’t write
In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.
Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and distancing, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.
Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.
Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify
- lack of focus or disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message.
- lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled.
There’s little I can do for the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:
Writers who don’t like to write
Many unskillful writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves “harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.”
The sort of unwieldy writing we’re talking about—the basic flaw being too many words—is said to have originated back in the day when lawyers were paid by the word. Legal documents do tend to be long-winded, often as an attempt to leave no loopholes unplugged—the CYA excuse. But this sort of overexplaining has splashed over into everyday writing, where it’s really not necessary unless you think that everyone is out to sue you. They’re not. If you believe that they are, you have a bigger problem than poor writing skills.
The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber
Can you speak?
One of the great fallacies about writing is that it is essentially different from talking. Perhaps you sit at the computer, hands poised above the keyboard, and your mind signals, “I am writing,” as if you are wearing the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Your brain goes into overdrive. Gears and pulleys clank into place, lumber into motion, and produce ponderous phrases and paragraphs you have no memory of composing:
The state-of-the-art virtuosity of Jumbo-Omni Systems’ advance-intelligence meta-solution integrative strategies reconfigure the clients’ multidimensional objective into positions compatible with fixed and liquid assets, human-resources skill sets, machine autonomy….
I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus—which doesn’t mean that their colleagues or readers haven’t wanted to poison them. In any case, writing to serve is a remarkably effective cure.
What are you waiting for?
If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:
- Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
- Lighten up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re writing to communicate genuinely terrible news, don’t take your topic too seriously either.
- For every writing assignment, define your role; that is, ask yourself how you can serve your audience.
- Clarify your purpose. You can make an outline if you want, although it’s easy to get bogged down in an outline and sabotage your own progress.
- Have fun writing your first draft. Let loose. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases that occur to you, but don’t force them. Do not edit as you go. Just write what you want to say, then set it aside for a while.
- With a fresh eye, edit for content and style. Is your message clear? Crystal?
- Proofread for mechanical errors—grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
- If there’s time, ask someone else to read your draft for content as well as correctness.
- Write final copy and distribute.
Shitty first drafts
It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. The right-brain/left-brain theory has fallen out of favor, but, for whatever reason, stopping often to analyze your work interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.
Author Anne Lamott, a novelist and Christian writer who is celebrated for her irreverence, is a proponent of “shitty first drafts…. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (Bird by Bird, 1994)
The point here is not that you try to write badly but rather that you write freely, without evaluating as you go. Stay focused on your purpose. When you’ve finished your shitty first draft, you can pretty it up and make it more palatable.
Write a brief biological sketch for yourself.
Can you think without words? Of course you can. You don’t use words to guide yourself from work to home on the same familiar path, or, for that matter, to operate your vehicle, any more than laboratory rats successfully navigate a maze by thinking, “Left, six inches, then a quick right.”
Infants have rudimentary reasoning skills before they have language. One of the first things they discover is who has the good stuff. Early in life, they cry automatically when they’re hungry, but pretty soon they figure out that Mom or Dad is the bringer of food, warmth, and comfort, so, at some point, babies learn to cry strategically. Mom or Dad walks in the door and they beam like a summer sunrise. “There she is!” they think wordlessly. “Here comes lunch!”
According to Russell T Hurlburt, Ph.D., in the article “Thinking Without Words” (Psychology Today, Nov. 11, 2011), this phenomenon is called “unsymbolized thinking,” defined as “the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include… words, images, or any other symbols.” Many psychologists believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible, but Hurlburt and his colleagues claim that their research validates its operation. My own research—consisting of throwing a stick in the yard and calling, “Fetch, Monica!” and then, when Monica brings me the stick, scratching her ears and giving her a treat—led to the same conclusion.
Language, however, is necessary for abstract thinking and flights of fancy that are among the writer’s greatest joys. This morning I heard a radio personality ask, “What does it mean to be human?” I applied about five minutes of very conscious thought to the matter and came up with a provisional hypothesis: being human is choosing to love. It’s not that other creatures are unable to love, Monica being a living, breathing, slobbering demonstration of doggie love. But only humans, I suggest, can make a decision to cultivate that emotion and exercise acts of love that don’t arise spontaneously. We can choose to love the planet, the frantic waitress, the elderly and infirm next-door neighbor, and even the spouse who cheated on us. I’m not talking about pretending to be kind when we are seething inside, although sometimes that’s the only way to start. I’m talking about reaching deep into the spirit and opening the valves that keep love from flowing… about giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and genuine.
Writes Arika Okrent in the article “Is It Possible to Think Without Language?” (mentalfloss.com, May 23, 2013),
While it appears that we can indeed think without language, it is also the case that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible by language. Language gives us symbols we can use to fix ideas, reflect on them and hold them up for observation. It allows for a level of abstract reasoning we wouldn’t have otherwise. The philosopher Peter Carruthers has argued that there is a type of inner, explicitly linguistic thinking that allows us to bring our own thoughts into conscious awareness. We may be able to think without language, but language lets us know that we are thinking.
Some scientists speculate about why humans think in words at all. Durham University psychologist Charles Fernyhough, author of The Voices Within, writes that we talk to ourselves for motivation and focusing, to change our behavior (“Stop fidgeting!”), and—perhaps most important—to engage in inner dialogue, by which we bring multiple perspectives to our thinking. “Language is particularly powerful at representing different perspectives and bringing them into contact with each other,” writes Fernyhough.
Writing marvelous worlds
The thinking that devised the hypothesis “being human is choosing to love” altered my mood. It was hopeful and uplifting. If I had addressed the question differently and had decided that “being human is choosing to win,” it probably would have depressed me. I can always love, and authentic love usually has good outcomes. Winning, on the other hand, entails luck, cunning, skill, strategizing, and often a certain amount of capital.
People who study happiness—Michael Neill and Robert Holden, to name a few—claim that your emotions proceed from your thoughts. If this is true, then can’t it also be said that the way one arranges words in one’s mind or on a blank page can determine how one feels? Speaking from a writer’s perspective, can we “write ourselves happy”?
I believe we can. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a “to-do” list and checking off the items as we accomplish them. There’s a great deal of power in that. But I have, from time to time, written worlds I’d like to inhabit—children’s stories of green, blooming, magical places where fairies grant wishes and all good things are possible. These worlds are in the realm of fiction, but who can deny that there are elements of truth in the fictional universes of Narnia, the Land of Oz, and Middle Earth?
Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?
Clue: Seven of the abbreviations are acronyms, four are initialisms, and one is just a plain old abbreviation. To be classified as an acronym, a word—usually made up of the initial letters of a sequence of words—must be pronounceable, as in UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). If the letters are said individually, as in DOJ (Department of Justice), the word is an initialism.
Answers: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
- An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
- An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
- An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
- An abbreviation for Incorporated
- An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
- An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
- An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
- An acronym for Random-Access Memory
- An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
- An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
- An initialism for United States of America
NOTE: If you like number 11—snafu, said to have been coined by GI’s during World War II—you’ll love fubar (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition), tarfu (Totally and Royally F***ed Up), and the like.
When I began editing the course catalog at the University of Arizona, the biennial catalog had just been printed. That meant that for the next two years, I had to confront, on a regular basis, the following solecism at the top of the first page of text:
An Historical Sketch
In American English, a few words—generally of French origin—begin with a silent H. They include hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb (but not herbicide). In most words beginning with H, however, the H is pronounced, as in handkerchief, her, him harass, height, heinous, helicopter, history, homage, house, hospital, hostile, house, huge, human, and hysteria.
Would you say “an house” or “an hat?” I hope not. No more would you say “an history.” When an indefinite article—a or an—is called for before historical, use a, as follows:
A Historical Sketch
In a heading, you might as well omit the indefinite article altogether:
* * *
Fairly recently, educated people who are otherwise well spoken have begun pronouncing the word homage as if they are writing a poem and they are desperate to find a word to rhyme, sort of, with garage, so they choose…
An alternative but also less-than-ideal pronunciation is…
“Careful” speakers—generally people like me who spend far too many hours squinting at dictionaries and style manuals—say homage like this:
In fact, the New York Times published an entire article on the topic, in which the author, Ben Zimmer, goes to bat for HOM-ij.
In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls [oh-MAZH]... a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury…. A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch.
I have a sneaking suspicion that people who Frenchify their vocabulary—seizing every opportunity to revert to the French pronunciations of English words that may have been in our language for hundreds of years—are putting on a little show. They want us to think they speak French, so they wrinkle their noses and elongate their vowels when saying French-based words and phrases such as hors d’oeuvre, entrepreneur, ambience, en route, and, yes, homage. Oh, well. It’s a harmless affectation. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?
According to Treehugger.com, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.
It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.
For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:
I am going to walk to the pharmacy
…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:
Amuna walk to the pharmacy.
Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said
I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy
…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.
Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”
The Golden Age of Illustration 1880s-1940s
About 140 years ago, an amazing transformation took place on the pages of magazines and children’s books. Where there had been few if any pictures, and these in black and white, suddenly glorious color illustrations appeared. Some of the finest artists in the world began illustrating familiar tales—such as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales—and new books as well. For over 50 years, the outpouring of color art flooded so many pages that the time is called the Golden Age of Illustration. One of the first children’s picture books to appear was Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children (1880).
Kate Greenaway’s style influenced dozens of artists, including Millicent Sowerby, an English illustrator whose pictures for the book Childhood (1907) fill every page with rich, warm color—very different from Arthur Rackham’s dark, broody illustrations. If I had owned an Arthur Rackham picture book when I was a child, I would never have read it at bedtime for fear of nightmares!
Turn back a page to see my very favorite illustration. The artist—Jessie Willcox Smith—depicts a boy with his arm around his sister, or perhaps his cousin or his best friend. The way his hand covers hers, you know that he would do anything to make her happy. Another artist whose pictures are full of love is Bessie Pease Gutmann. Clearly she adored children… and dogs as well. I’ve used many of her illustrations in the pages of this book.
Before the Golden Age, few women could earn money as artists. Suddenly, women’s art decorated millions of book and magazine covers and inside pages. Almost all the pictures in this book were created by women.
Can you imagine a universe without color picture books? Yet through many thousands of years of human history, we’ve had color picture books for only a little over a century. The Golden Age changed the way we see the world. Isn’t this a wonderful time to be alive?
The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”
I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.
The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.
Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.
“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.
Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.
My iPhone came with a vast library of emojis. Besides the obligatory faces portraying various skin colors and moods, there were tiny pictures of libraries, hospitals, cars, boats, doctors, nurses, fruits and vegetables, flags, even little piles of poop.
Now I have an Android, and it is emoji-deficient. Not only does it offer far fewer emojis, I’m not always sure what they signify, especially the faces. Maybe you can help me out. Here are a few I find most perplexing, along with my best guess as to their meanings:
I have two noses
I have two noses and I’m embarrassed about it
Trying to eat a zipper
Wearing too much makeup
Too cool for school
Suffering from head trauma
Snoring and drooling
Have lost circulation to the top of my head
Oh, my! Have lost circulation to the top of my head
In high dudgeon
Blinded by love / embarrassed / too much makeup
A few of my emojis, not pictured here, I think are supposed to indicate “kissing.” Sometimes I’d like to send someone a kissing emoji, but I don’t want to engage in inappropriate kissing. Some of the kissing emojis seem to suggest passionate kisses. There’s no one in the world right now I’d send a passionate kiss to without knowing whether the person is interested in exchanging passionate kisses with me. I don’t want a reputation as the type of girl who sends passionate-kiss emojis to guys she barely knows. Maybe there should be a kissing-with-a-question-mark emoji. I’m just not clear on the protocol.
(My old iPhone had green hearts, blue hearts, and yellow hearts. I stayed away from those for fear that a green heart, say, might be code for “I want to marry you and bear your children” or “Seeking a passionate relationship with a shrub.”)
The emojis pictured above rarely if ever express my actual status, and if they did, I wouldn’t want to use most of them. Do I really want the world to know that I’m constipated or trying to eat a zipper? So I’m forced to conclude that the people who created these emojis are either suffering from head trauma or have lost circulation to the top of the head. But there’s an off chance that I’m just not translating the emojis correctly. I’d really like to be emoji-literate, so if you have better definitions than I do, please send them along, okay? Thanks! ;>)
To a question on Quora about the “difference between ‘I am’ and ‘am I,’ I submitted this answer:
Inflections in a language are changes within words that indicate attributes such as tense, case, number, gender, and so forth. For example, the English-language suffix -ed to show past tense is an inflection.
English uses few inflections compared with, say, German, which is said to be “highly inflected.” Instead, English relies upon word order. The statement “I do play the trombone” has a meaning quite different from the question “Do I play the trombone?”
Thus, “I’m” (or “I am”) is understood in English to begin a statement, whereas “Am I” usually introduces a question. Interestingly, you will rarely hear English-speakers say “Am I not?” Someone arriving tardily to a meeting will rush into the room, panting, “I’m late, aren’t I?” It’s ungrammatical, strictly speaking, but the logical contraction “amn’t” does not exist in English. “Aren’t I” is acceptable in virtually every context.
What I did not say, because it wasn’t germane to the question, is that the much-maligned word ain’t could slip neatly into the first-person-singular negative interrogative form of the verb to be. I would go so far as to say that “ain’t I” is better, grammatically speaking, than “aren’t I.”
When I was learning the language, ain’t was the grammatical scarlet A. It scorched the air like a cussword in a deacons’ meeting. A person who said “ain’t” was not only linguistically inept but also considered intellectually backward and socially inferior, one of the great unwashed, fortunate to have shoes and clean underwear, probably living in a rusted-out trailer, three kids to a room. Ain’t is probably the most stigmatized word in the English language.
No one is sure why this is so, as, indeed, ain’t was standard for centuries among cultured speakers in literature, particularly in Britain. “For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot.” (Wikipedia)
Logically, we might as well say, “I amn’t.” It would be consistent with the second and third persons, as in, “You aren’t,” and “he isn’t.” But the issue doesn’t arise in the declarative form because we contract I with am and say, “I’m not.” Only in the interrogative do we come up against the lack of a contraction that makes grammatical sense, and so, rather than say, “I’m late, am I not?” which is just too, too prissy for us plainspoken Americans, we blurt, “I’m late, aren’t I?”
And we’ll keep on committing this same solecism, as long as the grass is green and the skies are blue, because, thankfully, language is not math and there are quirky inconsistencies at every turn. Are there not? And would we truly have it any other way?