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    Digging Deep Into Letters

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    h-spo How do you develop a closer relationship with language? It’s something I’m coming to understand as I read Roy Peter Clark’s excellent and accessible book, The Glamour of Grammar. In it, Clark notes, “For those living inside the language, each sound, each letter offers potential delight and meaning.”

    To drive home his point, Clark encourages readers to adopt a favorite letter; research and mind map words that begin with it; and write a short profile about it.

    My word profile is published below. If you’re feeling inspired, give the activity a try and let us know how your profile turns out.

    The Hubbub About H

    I didn’t expect the letter h to be so heated.

    In a mind map of h-words, a good-versus-evil theme emerges. There’s harmony and havoc; hero and heathen; help and hinder. Then there’s the ultimate clash of heaven and hell.

    Honestly, h has had a hectic history. At one point, the Romantic languages nearly heaved the letter out of existence. In the 13th Century, Old French—the very language where h’s “aitch” pronunciation derived from—omitted the letter from its language. Late Latin followed suit, silencing h. The letter reemerged in Middle English, starting with word spellings and eventually vocalizations. However, h is still silent in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

    H’s period of turmoil is evident in Modern English words with Latin roots such as honor and honest (silent h); humble (h is now vocalized); and able (derived from the Latin habile).  

    But there’s more. H is at the center of a pronunciation battle brewing in Great Britain. A growing number of Brits who pronounce h as “haitch” rather than “aitch” are catching flack from wordsmiths who deem the former as improper and inelegant. In fact, the BBC has been flooded by complaints about hosts using the “lower standard” of pronunciation. Oh the horror!

    All this hubbub for a letter that started as an Egyptian hieroglyphic for fence. No disrespect to the pharaohs, but I think H looks more like a rung on a ladder.

    But maybe I’m just being hostile.

    Now it’s your turn. Pick a letter, any letter. Do a little research. Then write a profile. I think you’ll feel a new kinship with a small but not so insignificant piece of our language. 

    —Tim Kemper

    A 1-2-3 for Writing Instructions

    Monday, April 27, 2015
    Confused drawer?

    I recently became a first-time homeowner, which has been quite the learning experience. Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Do-It-Yourself projects are not as simple as they look on HGTV.

    My lack of DIY acumen has resulted in an unhealthy amount of time browsing instructional Web sites, manuals, and videos. Along the way, I’ve encountered a surprising number of poorly written instructional materials. Common problems include unclear commands, undefined technical terms, missing steps, and mislabeled diagrams.

    These problems are particularly unfortunate for us novice DIYers, who rely on instructions and best-practice models to get jobs done. Poorly written instructions make it difficult to complete jobs safely and correctly, which compounds frustration.

    But it doesn’t have to be so. Here are some tips for making instructions easy to follow and understand.

    1. Write for beginners. If you’re writing to a general audience, imagine the person with the least knowledge of the subject, and write to that person. Keep in mind that this reader is likely apprehensive to get started. Hold his or her hand through the process using words and visuals.
    2. Outline and test your steps. Create a list of numbered steps, and test them out. Are they in the correct order?  Are additional actions needed to complete the task?  Remember, you are walking your readers through each step. Don’t assume they will take an action that is not explicitly stated.
    3. Write each step as a command. Command sentences get right to the point, providing readers with a clear directive of what to do next. These sentences use active verbs and an implied subject (you). So instead of saying “The seat should be attached to the chair back with four long bolts,” say “Attach the seat to the chair back using four long bolts.”
    4. Use simple language, and define technical terms. I recently worked my way through a set of instructions that included a step to “Inset the CHAMFERRED END of side stretchers into the holes of the chair’s back legs.” Besides the questionable command (should “inset” be “insert”?), what really bothered me was the all-caps treatment of the (misspelled) word chamfered. It’s not a term I was familiar with, but the all-caps treatment indicated that it was important. The instructions neither defined the word nor showed an illustration of its meaning.
      The lesson for instructional writers is this:  Even if you are fluent in the language of the task at hand, the language may be foreign to your readers. Avoid technical words and insider language. And when a technical term is necessary, define it through words or visuals. Also, take the time to proofread and spellcheck your work.
    5. Use pictures, illustrations, and labels wisely. Visual elements, when used correctly, are hugely beneficial. Make sure your visual elements are big enough to see and detailed enough to understand. This includes the list of materials needed to complete the task. Labels and directional graphics such as arrows are a few ways to improve the readability of visual elements.
    6. Observe someone using your instructions. Nothing serves like a real-life test. So ask a friend or colleague (someone unfamiliar with the subject) to put your instructions into practice while you watch—without intervening. Take notes about any points of hesitation or confusion, and revise your instructions for better clarity.

    In conclusion, remember that people turn to instructions when they don’t know how to do something. Your job is to provide the help they need, in the clearest, simplest terms. 

    —Tim Kemper

    Writing for Change

    Wednesday, December 31, 2014
    To Do's

    One of the best things about human beings is their capacity for change.

    Sometimes change comes dramatically, from a sudden insight, an “Aha” moment that gives everything after a totally different perspective.

    Sometimes it comes slowly, laboriously, the intentional development of a new habit and just as intentional avoidance of an old one.

    As a writer, I encounter something similar to both pretty much daily: whether it’s in a sudden inspiration that rushes me to the keyboard to get an idea down while the vision is fresh, or the slow accumulation of details to flesh out a chapter, and then another, and another, until the whole picture comes into focus.

    But writing can be more than a way of simply recording change. It can be a powerful tool for effecting change. For example, I recall facing a few decisions in college so tough that only a pro-and-con list could see me through. As I jotted down details in each column, the decision took shape, until the conclusion seemed inevitable. By the same token, sometimes writing a journal entry, or a letter to a friend (even if it is never sent), brings things into focus so that we can move forward.

    In business, of course, we write reports and plans and analyses, not merely to defend a course of action, but more importantly to decide on one. Business writing brings clarity and focus to our endeavors.

    At this time of year, it is traditional to make a list of resolutions for the coming months. I encourage you to write your resolutions down. Then prioritize them. And as you accomplish each in the coming year, check it off. Treat your resolutions as a to-do list (or even as a bucket list), and they’re more likely to be achieved.

    Let the power of your writing, even in this simple way, help you take advantage of our shared human capacity for change.

    Best wishes in the coming year.

    —Lester Smith

    The Geometry of Communication

    Monday, December 22, 2014
    Red Pyramid

    At its core, any communication has three main elements: sender, subject, and receiver. (Issues of medium and context also affect communication, but let’s focus on those central three for now.) This is sometimes referred to as the “Communication Triangle.” 

    As sender, you’re trying to get something from inside your head into another person’s. That “something” is the subject, and that other person is the receiver.

    As simple as this may seem, it’s worth some scrutiny, because any of those three elements can introduce fuzziness into the equation.

    Sender

    Let’s face it, if human beings fully understood themselves, less miscommunication would occur. Our wants and assumptions aren’t always clear even to our own minds. Writing to ourselves can help to shed some light, which is why some people keep diaries or journals, and why other people blog. Even talking out loud when no one else is around can help. This is also why we draft a message before polishing and sending it: a draft is a rough picture, helping us to better envision the whole. Simply put, we can write to learn what it is we want to say.

    Message

    Working out a draft touches on the next part of the triangle, the message. Frankly, trying to write about an unfamiliar topic is tough. Studies have shown that even college English professors writing about topics outside their field experience decreased accuracy in grammar and spelling. Their minds are so occupied grappling with the subject that there’s not enough brain power left over for correct language. Again, writing in stages can help, starting with a rough draft, then polishing it, before final editing. That process also reveals any gaps in our knowledge of the topic, which makes this a valuable part of a research process. In other words, we can write to discover what we know and have yet to learn.

    Receiver

    Psychologists say that most human brains don’t develop the ability to step outside their own perspective and into someone else’s until about age twenty-five. That complicates communication. Until we can imagine someone else’s reaction to a message, we can’t craft it to their needs. So everything we say is all push, sending information outward in terms we understand and relying on the other person to translate and comprehend. On the other hand, once we can actually imagine an audience and predict its responses, we can better tailor a message to their words and their understanding. It’s the difference between a pointing finger and a beckoning finger.

    Achieving Balance

    A balanced triangle is one of the most stable shapes in existence. (Which is why the pyramids, Old World and New World, are among the oldest surviving structures.) By paying careful attention to each part of the communication triangle—our desires as sender, our understanding of the message, and the needs of the receiver—we can use best achieve this balance in our writing.

    —Lester Smith

    Message in a Bottle

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    "cf_message_in_a_Bottle" photo by Tony Persunis licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been cropped.

    This weekend my daughter who teaches English in Belgium told me about a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

    Student: “You like to write, don’t you.”

    Daughter: “How did you know that?”

    Student: “Oh, you’d be surprised what someone can discover on the Internet. [Laughs.] I read your blog, and was especially touched by the entry about…” That led to further discussion, and a warm human connection.

    The exchange made me think about why anybody writes anything, from blog entries, to advertising copy, to business plans. It isn’t merely to express ourselves, but rather to reach out for a connection.

    To illustrate, let me turn to the 1979 song by The Police, “Message in a Bottle,” with these lines of the chorus:

    I'll send an SOS to the world…

    I hope that someone gets my

    Message in a bottle

    and these first lines of the third verse:   

    Walked out this morning

    Don't believe what I saw

    A hundred billion bottles

    Washed up on the shore

    The point of the song, according to its author, is the comfort of recognizing that we’re all alike in trying to connect—to communicate.

    I believe there’s a deeper lesson to be learned. It has to do with intent.

    In the chorus of the song “Message in a Bottle,” the intent is inward focused. It’s all about “Hey, look at me.” However, in the third verse, the focus becomes outward focused. It’s the sudden realization of “Hey, look at all of you.”

    If the flood of media gushing from the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey, look at me” doesn’t accomplish much. It’s just more noise.

    “Here’s something for you,” on the other hand, accomplishes a lot. Metaphorically speaking, a sea full of bottles with the same “Here I am” messages is unremarkable, especially to another castaway. But imagine opening a bottle and finding a recipe for coconut soup, or instructions for building a raft and navigating back home, or even just a note saying “I know you feel alone, but we’re all in this together.”

    The point is this: To really stand out, be helpful. When the rescue ships sail, they’ll look for the person with the coconut soup recipe first.

    —Lester Smith