May 272015
 Article Comments Off on Speechless but not stumped

Through the marvels of modern technology (LinkedIn and email), I am privileged to serve as ad hoc advisor to a journalist in Islamabad. He is determined to replace the Victorian British taught in the schools with American-slanted, contemporary English usage.From time to time–sometimes several times a week, sometimes with weeks or months in between–he will send me a couple of sentences and ask for corrections.

It’s a wonderful experience because it forces me, a native speaker of American English, to think about why I say and write the things I do. Often a certain word will land clumsily on my ear and I will have to think through the connotation.

Recently, for example, he asked whether “You stumped me” could be translated as “You made me speechless.”

That answer, certainly, was “no.” But why?

What I came to, and told him, was this: Being “stumped” is an intellectual thing. You could stump me by asking who’s leading in the American League. (I don’t follow baseball, but apparently the Twins are doing well enough right now that even I have heard about it.) Being “speechless” is an emotional thing–I am touched or shocked by what I have just seen or heard and therefore can’t come up with an appropriate (or in some cases tactful) response.

(Oh, and I am pretty sure an American would say “you left me speechless.”)

Mar 252013
 American English, Article, Business Writing Comments Off on How to say “thank you”

An article in a job-seekers newsletter affirmed the value of the written thank-you note as a follow-up to an interview. “With so little coming into the office via mail v. email, it’s a pleasure for many business people to actually open an envelope and read a hand written note. It connects in much different way than a typed email.,” the article said.

True enough. But people who still believe the handwritten thank you is the only appropriate vehicle may be missing some realities of today’s job-hunting environment.

  1. Timing is everything. Even if you write the note in your car after the interview and drive it to the nearest post office, the note probably won’t arrive for 24 to 48 hours. If you interviewed by phone for a long-distance position, the timetable is even longer. The decision could be made before your note arrives.
  2. OOO? Uh-oh. Your handwritten note could languish in a mailbox while the intended recipient is traveling or working from home.
  3. Decisions are made by committee. If you are interviewed by more than one person, do you write more than one thank-you? An email allows for multiple recipients. It also allows one recipient to forward easily to others who might have an influence on the final decision.

None of these are reasons not to send a hand-written note. But they are good reasons to use email as well. My advice: Use the email to provide some added-value content. “One more thought regarding your question about…” Or “I enjoyed our discussion about X. Here is a link to the article I mentioned, which provides some really good solutions.”

The handwritten note can be a more formal thank you, ending with a subtle call to action, like “I look forward to further discussion about this position.”

In short, which vehicle is “better”? The correct answer, as always, is “It depends.”

Mar 132013
 Article, Uncategorized Comments Off on Showing Up

Over on LinkedIn, someone asked what advice she should give to the students at her Alma Mater in a commencement address. My response was to lead with Woody Allen’s quote, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” (He may have said “90 percent,” or perhaps it was “success,” not “life,” but you get the idea.)

Over time, nothing beats reliability. Inspiration will certainly fail you. Your talent may not be up to any given task. You won’t be able to tackle every project with enthusiasm. But showing up is almost always within your control.

I’m not even talking about the perspiration that Edison said was 99 percent of genius. It isn’t about hard work and giving it your all. I’m just talking about returning emails, getting to the meeting on time, giving people the information they need from me to get on with whatever they need to do.

In his glory days, Woody Allen was famous for not attending the Oscars, because the broadcast used to be on Monday night, and he had a standing clarinet gig at some little club in Manhattan. Nobody could figure out how mediocre tootling could take precedence over the biggest night in show business. For Allen, the choice was clear: The group needed him, so he showed up.

When you truly understand the value of showing up, you can do it not just for others, but for yourself as well. That’s how you get through the days that drag and the mornings that are filled with dread.

For a writer—and at heart, that’s what Woody Allen is—showing up is vital because there are so many ways not to. You can sharpen pencils, clean closets, play around on Facebook. You can let one unsatisfactory day—or paragraph—persuade you to abandon the project. In that case, there is a 100 percent chance that the work will not get done.

Showing up is no guarantee that the work will be great, but 80 percent of something beats 100 percent of nothing every time.

Mar 012013
 Article, Uncategorized Comments Off on “Show, don’t tell”

The advice in the headline comes from the late, great Henry James. It is the secret of great fiction: Concrete versus abstract. In non-fiction, the same advice applies, but the reasons are different: The difference between argument and assertion is that the former provides support for a point of view. The latter doesn’t, and the reader is left to take the writer’s word for it. Or not.

One of the reasons we get so burned out by political advertising—beyond the sheer volume of it—is that it mostly consists of dueling assertions. That’s also the reason that the ads have so little persuasive value—we simply select the set of assertions that aligns with our existing beliefs. Assertions give us nothing to wrestle with or discuss. A good argument demands a thoughtful rebuttal, not a flippant rejection.

I was concerned, therefore, by a blog post I saw on LinkedIn that offered a “quick copywriting tip” designed to deliver “strategic subtlety.” The writer praised a brochure for a medical center that asserted, “More than a building, it will be a catalyst for our next wave of contributions to science and healing.”

According to the blogger, “This is more effective, not to mention easier to consume, than sharing a list of achievements that most readers will probably find boring.”
What he calls a boring list of achievements is what I call “facts.” And I still rely on facts to determine whether I can accept an assertion like “catalyst for contributions to science and healing.”

Certainly a list of achievements can fail to persuade if they don’t engage the target audience. But I, for one, have almost infinite patience when someone is talking about what’s in it for me.

It may be that argument is going the way of the dodo, but although I fancy myself progressive in most areas of life, this is a place where I will hold the line. “Show, don’t tell.”

Feb 222013
 Article, Uncategorized Comments Off on Draft Dodging

Anne Lamott, bless her heart, offers single best piece of writing advice: “Writ a really, really sh***y first draft.” Her point, more or less, is that the first draft is going to be dreadful no matter what. You aren’t going to make it better by enabling a bunch of nagging and critical voices inside your head.

That’s particularly true of the first paragraph. Something has to go in the first paragraph of the first draft—it’s the whole space/time continuum thing. But it’s hardly ever what should ultimately be there. Writing is a process of discovery, and you won’t really know what you want to say until you’ve said it.

Most of the time, the first paragraph can simply be cut away. The real beginning is one or two or three paragraphs in. If you listen carefully, you can hear the place where the writing shifts from neutral into forward gear.

But you can’t listen carefully when you’re writing, anymore than you can listen carefully while you’re talking. We all know people for whom our end of the conversation is just mental prep time for their next monologue. It doesn’t make for satisfying communication.

In writing, you can’t be a writer and an editor at the same time. One activity is spontaneous and messy. The other is analytical and precise. Most halfway successful grownups really do have both skills, but it’s a rare person who can practice them both at the same time.

Feb 052013
 Article Comments Off on Calling all Jewish writers

This year’s big movie was Lincoln, the film about the sixteenth president and his bold bid to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. I went to the film looking forward not only to Steven Spielberg’s directing and the star turns of Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields, but most of all to the Tony Kushner screenplay.

I have been a die-hard Kushner fan since I saw Angels in America back in the early 1990s. I drove 500 miles round-trip for that production and it was worth every mile. When the Guthrie Theater stages a Kushner festival a few years back, I went to every single event, from Caroline, or Change starring the brilliant Greta Oglesby to the evening of Tiny Plays in the Dowling Studio. What I remember most about the interview of Kushner by Joe Dowling is that, when someone in the audience rose to complain that a music stand was blocking the view, it was Kushner himself who leapt to his feet to move it—a gesture so instinctively good-hearted that I loved the man as well as his work.

Kushner had been commissioned to do a new work for the Guthrie festival. But Kushner had also been hired on to the Lincoln production not long before. Rumor was that Kushner showed up in Minneapolis with a blank notebook and wrote most of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to the Universe with a Key to the Scriptures in the Guthrie bar. The result was sort of a mess, although not at all unwatchable, and the “premiere” was also, as far as I know, the finale.

One of the on-going devices of the Kushner play was to have two or more characters talking over one another for long stretches—just as Abe and Mary do when their grief over their son’s death overflows. “Ah, the last vestiges of the Guthrie commission,” I thought. I also swear that Mary Todd Lincoln sprang full-blown from Kushner’s imagination. She is the sort of loopy, tormented yet sage and insightful female that Kushner first introduced as Harper in Angels in America.

No hard feelings about the Guthrie commission, Mr. Kushner. I completely understand why the Lincoln project compelled you.

Kushner is a secular atheist Jew (he used to claim to be Bolshevik but I think he has mellowed to socialist with age). He recalls growing up using the Freedom Seder at the family Passover celebrations. The Jewish liberals of his parents’ generation tied their own liberation story, told in Exodus, to the civil rights struggles in the south. That’s why Abraham Joshua Heschel walked at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right hand. It’s why Michael Schwerner died along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in Mississippi.

Tony Kushner is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the Emancipation in the same way that Arthur Miller was uniquely qualified to write about the Salem Witch Trials. There are no yarmulkes or Torah scrolls in sight, but these are expressions of Jewish ideals and beliefs, make no mistake.

And reading them makes me hope that I, too, can be a Jewish writer someday. I’m going to start here (and you can, too!):

Jan 212013
 Article Comments Off on The Desk Drawer Strategy

I was talking to a former student over the holidays, and guess what piece of advice he cited as most helpful in his business writing? Not the BLOT or the advice about tightening language…not the Focus Sheet or the insights about audience and purpose. Nope. What he said was, “I remember how you told us to walk away from the manuscript for a while. I still do that, and it really works.”

In the olden days, when “files” were made from card stock instead of electrons, this was known as the “desk drawer strategy.” You take a piece of writing as far as you can, and then you put it in the desk drawer and forget about it. When you come back and read it with a fresh eye, you’ll be able to catch the typos you overlooked. Sometimes you’ll see the bigger problems, too—an argument that doesn’t track, a paragraph that seems out of order, a redundant thought.

When I demonstrate this strategy for my students, the hard thing is to get them to walk away. Switching to email or Facebook doesn’t count. You have to shut the computer down, get up, walk around, stare out a window or—interesting concept—actually converse with a living human being for a while.

In class, we use a 10-minute break for a one-page memo. Timing has to be proportionate. Right now I have a 50,000 word manuscript that I cranked out in November sitting in the electronic file drawer—I probably won’t be ready to look at it until February.

Allocating that desk-drawer time-out requires a little time management, but it’s worth it. Every once in a while, I will decide to send a just-finished piece off to my editor. I always regret it. At best, I wind up sending one of those “Oops—use this one instead” follow-ups. Worse, he gets back to me and asks, “Did you really mean…?” Worst of all, the piece is published and requires a correction.

“Proofing” is a term that refers both to that final read-through of a finished document and to the final rise of dough prior to baking. Skip either step, and you’re likely to wind up with something half-baked.

Jul 062012
 Article Comments Off on BLOT II

Although the BLOT must be the first thing the reader finds in a business document, a clear and cogent BLOT is not likely to be the first thing a writer writes. Writing is a process of discovery—that’s why adolescents, and others, keep journals. You aren’t fully aware of what you’re going to say until you’ve said it.

If writing is a troubling process for you, if it takes too long and you can’t bring yourself to get started, the single best thing you can do for yourself is to stop trying to write a great opening paragraph. In the overall time/space continuum, something has to come first. Don’t worry about it. Just start typing. Write what you have to say, and then take a deep breath and plunge through to a powerful concluding paragraph.

Now do two more things:

First, go back to the top and find your real beginning, the place where you really start to gain traction on your topic. Delete everything that comes before that.

Second, take your powerful final paragraph and move it up to the beginning. You may have to do some minor adjusting to make things flow from there, but chances are the very end of your first draft is where you’ll find your true beginning. Bottom line on top.

Jun 122012
 Article Comments Off on BLOT

By the end of the first paragraph of a business document, the reader should know not only what problem, issue or opportunity you’re writing about, but also the proposed solution or action steps you will be advocating. Deborah Dumaine, in her excellent business writing book, Write to the Top,” calls this BLOT—bottom line on top.

There are two reasons for BLOT:
1.       Today’s business documents are scanned, not read. Estimates of the average time recruiters spend on a resume, for example, vary from 6 seconds to 30—nobody says it’s more than that. For a major business report, you might have as much as 10 minutes, but you shouldn’t count on it.
If you put your conclusions at the end of the document, chances are your reader will never get to them.

2.       When you put the BLOT in the first paragraph, you give the reader a filter for reading the rest of the document. In the absence of a BLOT, I have sometimes read through a document, reaching my own conclusions about the content—then discovered to my amazement that the authors had reached different conclusions from the same content. At that point, I felt a need to re-read to see how their conclusions varied so dramatically from mine—but who has time for that? I simply ruled their conclusions invalid.

It is amazingly difficult for people to put BLOT into practice. I think we are all still haunted by our third grade book report format: “And if you want to know how it ends, you have to read the book.”

In third grade, that might have been a rousing challenge to say, “Yes, I’ll read the book!” In the business world, telling the audience “You need to read all the way to the end” is likely to draw the response, “Says who?”