Friday, July 26, 2013

Blog Redux: That To-Do List of Yours Could Be the First Step toward Writing a Best-Seller

If you follow this blog occasionally, you might have noticed that I'm not posting many items these days. After more than a year of running this blog--and posting 1,043 items--I'm moving toward shutting it down, for various reasons.

Here's the first item I posted here, almost two years ago before I knew what I would be doing doing with the blog. Posting this item back then was an experiment, following up on an email message I sent a former colleague.

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A former colleague at King County asked me recently for some advice on helping a staff member get started on writing projects. Below is a modified version of how I responded. ...

First, here's a method that's worked for me at times and when I've been advising and teaching others--when it's tough to get started and keep going:

Think of lists--to-do lists, shopping lists, top 10 lists, how-to-do-it lists, vacation/travel suitcase lists, Christmas present lists, thank-you card lists, party invitation lists, and so on. Each item on those lists might have a lot of meaning, but just writing down the key words helps the list-writer figure out what he or she needs, likes, wants to do, and so on.

Apply that type of list-making to whatever you need to write about. Start with the simple: What's important to you about the topic? What's important to your boss? What's important to the project? What's important in the research? What's important to the audience? And so on. But don't rank or explain anything; just start listing short answers to those types of questions.

Do NOT worry about writing complete sentences at this point. Think of topic headings or book titles or just prompt words, words with symbolic or deeper meaning to the writer.

And don't think of writing the list items in some dreaded outline, as we may have been taught to do in school. In other words, don't worry about the structure of the list--and all those numbers and letters and Roman numerals. Instead, think of it as a bulleted list (the bullets can help separate items from one another).

And once you're exhausted doing that (for now), think about lists that could go below some or all of those original list topics--other bullets that provide more info about each original bullet ... or your brief thoughts or feelings about those original bullets ... or reference sources to get more information about those bullets ... and so on.

Perhaps you'll find that some of those sub-bullets need to stand alone. Pull them out and add them to the original list.

THEN start ranking the list items: What's the highest priority? What's most meaningful? What's most interesting? What's most useful? And so on? Also think about what could be scratched off the list as nonessential (or, at least, set aside for future consideration). If you're writing this list on a piece of paper, simply circle the most important list items--or start numbering them (in pencil--or be willing to cross out numbers). If you're using a computer, save the original list--unchanged--and start moving things around on a copy of that list.

NOW, you can start filling in the blanks--with words that make complete sentences of the list items. And then think about how to organize the sentences into paragraphs or sections or chapters. The original bullets might be sections of a report or paper--the heading or first paragraph--and the sub-bullets could be additional paragraphs. Heck, the bulleted items could actually become bullets in the paper. But don't overdo that--it can start looking tedious and uninteresting to the reader.

Also, if you've ranked list items by number, think of using those numbers in the sentences: First, here's some important information. Second, here's some other information to explain that. Third, here's additional evidence. And so on. Or use transitional words between the list items like "Next," "Then," "Later," "Also" "For example," "Likewise" and so on. That helps you as the writer keep things in order. But more importantly, it helps the reader follow your thought process.
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In my original message to my former colleague, I concluded my writing advice with this statement:  I'm going to blunder and do something I've told myself NOT to do in other places--I'm not going to proofread or edit my words above; I need to do something else. But there's a lesson in this, too: Tell your colleague not to start judging and revising what he's listed--or even written--until he's done with the list or a section of the document. Just get it out on paper or on the computer. THEN he can go back and start editing or revising it.)
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Second, here's a Web page of mine that includes links to other Web pages that provide advice on the writing process and overcoming writer's block: Garbl’s Writing Process Links. It's been a while since I reviewed the links and can't endorse any particular website. [Please note: I learned recently that this Web page is not working properly in Internet Explorer or Opera; it’s working fine in Firefox. I’m trying to fix it and some other pages.]

Third, check out the Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide. The first two sections--on Reader/Purpose and Organization--can aid getting started. (If you’re interested, I can provide many other excellent online resources about plain language.)

And finally, here are three books on writing that could be helpful, even inspirational. All three are good, but I've listed them in order of complexity, from the simplest and least overwhelming:
  • The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles of Structure, Style and Readability, Brandon Royal.
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark. Part IV, called Useful Habits, has 11 short sections that can help a writer get started and overcome writer's block.
  • A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words that Work, Jack Hart. The first chapter, in particular, is about Process and covers getting started and writer's block. But it's all good.
If you have questions or comments about any of this, please contact me!

Gary


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oxford English Dictionary to update entry for 'marriage' to include gay unions

Good news!

Salon.com reports:
The language experts behind the Oxford English Dictionary have confirmed that the definition of “marriage” will be changed to reflect the inclusion of gay couples, in light of a string of recent marriage equality victories around the world.
I'll be curious to see how Oxford updates the marriage entry in its directionless  I'm also curious about when and how other dictionaries (and style manuals) will update their entries.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The New Illiteracy -- Obfuscation -- Hinders Progress | Counter It with Plain Language

Though Richard Steiner calls it a "new illiteracy" in this column, he's right on when he defines obfuscation and the essential actions to fight it. He writes:
[O]bfuscation is the intentional misuse of language in order to avoid communication, to conceal or distract from substance or meaning. This rhetorical tool allows a speaker or writer to feign concern for an issue, while remaining vague, confusing, opaque, and ambiguous.
I like his point that efforts to spread this new form of illiteracy are really promoting "an anti-literacy of sorts, where language is used to avoid communication," an effort that's not new in our culture. He writes:
Just as malnutrition can result from too little food (hunger) or too much food (obesity), illiteracy can likewise result from either the under use, or over use, of language. Each year, thousands of speeches, articles, webpages, reports, conferences, and workshops discuss important issues, but mostly as pretense and subterfuge to mask the lack of progress on these very same issues.
Fortunately, Steiner notes, organizations in the United States and around the world are working to counter obfuscation:
At this point in human history, we need clear, honest discussion of issues -- environmental, economic, and social. And this is the focus of an emerging global "plain language movement", with organizations now in the UK, U.S., Australia, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, France, Finland, and Belgium. There is the Plain Language Association International, Clarity International, and the Center for Plain Language, whose motto is: "If it doesn't makes sense, demand to understand."
And he emphasizes that we must go beyond revealing, questioning and explaining the language used by obfuscators:
In discussions about real-world problems, we should demand real-world answers, with specifics, commitments, and timelines. We should pay closer attention to the actions (and budgets) of industry and government, rather than their words. We should demand that public officials say what they mean, and mean what they say. If we can't talk honestly and clearly about our problems, we can't solve them.
For more information on plain language, aka plain English, visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It describes seven steps on "How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too!"_______
Steiner's column is featured today, July 10, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

20 Strategies for Writing in Plain Language | How to meet the needs of your readers

Editor Mark Nichol provides a clear, concise description of plain-language strategies in this blog article at Daily Writing Tips. He begins:
The increasing popularity of plain language, the concept of writing clear, simple prose, is making it easier for people to understand legal documents and government forms. It’s also recommended for any print or online publications intended to provide information or explain a process — and writers should consider its utility for any content context. ...
For more information and advice, visit my plain-language website: Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:. How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too! I begin:
Plain English is an approach to writing that concentrates on the needs of your readers. This clear writing approach is often called plain language because of its international value and use in other languages. It is ideal for people who write to and for clients, customers, employees, organization members, ratepayers, students and taxpayers. It helps us write for people who read at all levels of time, interest, education and literacy. It also benefits readers with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities.
My guide discusses plain language in these seven steps:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
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Nichol's article is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

What’s wrong with the passive voice? | The Stroppy Editor

Despite the title, this blog article by a London writer also discusses the differences between passive and active voice, reasons to be passive, and "Bad passives and the indirect way to fix them."

Blogger Tom Freeman begins:
Michael Gove, the [British] Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).
The campaign isn't wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.
Freeman concludes:
There are times when the difference between the active and passive doesn’t matter much. If you’ve been staring at two versions of a sentence for a while, trying to decide which is better, chances are you’ll be fine either way. Pick one and get on with life. 
For more advice, here are my related entries in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquetThe board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting.
Also, avoid shifts between active and passive within a sentence. Change: The new website manager majored in English and was employed by the city as an editor. To: The new manager majored in English and worked at the city as an editor. See headlines.
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
headlines, headings ...
For headlines, state or imply a complete sentence in the present tense. Avoid using passive voice. Omit most "helping" and "to be" verbs: Road improvements planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest instead of Road improvements are planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest. Cut articles (a, an, the): School district schedules open house on proposed curriculum changes instead of School district has scheduled an open house on the proposed curriculum changes. Infinitive is preferred to future tense: City Council to consider budget recommendation instead of The City Council will consider the budget recommendation. In headlines with more than one line, avoid separating verbs of more than one word, modifiers from the words they modify and prepositions from the phrases they introduce. ...
I also discuss passive voice in the Writing clear, simple sentences section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive
Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. The "doer" in active sentences is usually named or described at the start of the sentence. The active is more direct; it helps drive home the message. Active verbs usually suggest that someone is doing something: collapse, confuse, jumpThe passive can obscure the message.
Active voice is usually more concise than passive voice. Sentences that are passive instead of active usually contain forms of the verb to beam, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. And those verbs usually come before verbs than end in -ed or -encarried, taken.
  • Instead of:  
The fund-raising campaign was approved by the Executive Committee.
  • Use:
The Executive Committee approved the fund-raising campaign.
  • Instead of:
Complaints are taken seriously by the Parks Department.
  • Use:
The Parks Department takes complaints seriously.
Passive voice may be suitable for one of these reasons: when you don't know the doer or actor, when the doer or actor is unimportant to the point you're making, or when the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but the acted upon. 
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Freeman's blog entry is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper,
Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free emails subscription.

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