Go ahead and let them see you sweat

Don’t let them see you sweat.

I’m sure you’ve heard that advice. Even when you’re not sure what to do, even when you feel scared, it’s best for you, as a leader, to wear a veneer of invincibility.

small-oak-tree

An oak seedling: vulnerable but strong

For years, that’s how I tried to be. Not the superhero who shoved everyone out of the way and said “I’ve got this,” but the calm, steady, implacable one who never let anything ruffle him and who (especially) never admitted to needing help.

And what did that get me? Respect, maybe. But not the loyalty or affection of my team members. I think most of them saw me as aloof, above it all — able to connect with them only on a superficial level.

As I’ve grown wiser I’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago, the Twitter #PoCchat conversation (every Monday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern) focused on vulnerability in leadership.

I like the definition Randy Thio offered during the chat: Being vulnerable is the deliberate absence of any barriers that may protect you physically and/or emotionally.

In other words, vulnerability is about your being open. Honest. Transparent.

Without vulnerability, you might come across as solid, dependable, even invincible. But you’ll also come across as distant and unsympathetic.

When people think you’re incapable of relating to them, it’s hard for them to trust you or feel loyalty toward you.

So try being the person you are rather than a superhero — indestructible but unrelatable — or a robot — steady and dependable but aloof. Try removing your mask.

When you remove your mask you can relax, because you don’t have to devote your energy to playing a role. You’re more confident, because all of us are better at being ourselves than at trying to be someone else.

Yes, you’ll be more confident. Seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Many of us associate vulnerability with having less confidence — with quaking in our boots, with trying not to let them see us sweat.

Although it might seem that way, it turns out that vulnerability and confidence complement each other. An insecure leader is almost never vulnerable: the last thing they want is for people to see their imperfections. It takes more confidence to be vulnerable.

It’s important that you get that. You don’t want your people to see you as a superhero or a robot. You do want them to see that you’re confident. Confident that you and your team can bring about a good outcome. Confident enough to take off your mask and let them see that you’re human too.

If you’d like to work on your vulnerability, I can suggest two things: tell your story, and be true.

Tell your story

Don’t be a man or woman of mystery. Be approachable. Make it easier for other people to relate to you.

If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you’ve probably had experiences that bear on the situation you’re in now. Share those experiences with the team. Even if you think of those experiences as failures, focus on what the failures taught you and how they prepared you for today’s situation.

As Randy Thio observed, telling your story invariably exposes you to judgment and criticism, further demonstrating vulnerability.

Be true

You already know that a leader should value the truth and should never act deceitfully.

Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the triumph over itDoes that mean that when the situation turns really bad, when you see everything falling down and you’re losing heart, you should be open and candid about absolutely everything?

Yes and no. Yes, but be careful to keep things in perspective.

Since you’ve likely experienced a similar problem or crisis before, you can lend insight that’ll help you and the team deal with today’s situation. Help your team see beyond the immediate; help them see the bigger picture.

Maybe you feel anxious, even frightened. Instead of expressing those emotions publicly, acknowledge them to yourself and then ask yourself whether they’re really warranted. No matter how bad things get, the sky isn’t really falling.

Once you’ve worked past those emotions, talk about how you did it.

Keep your poise. Don’t be the one who spreads panic.

And if you need help, be honest about that too. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that your confidence is wavering. It simply means you’re no different from everyone else.

What it boils down to

Vulnerability. It boils down to your objective as a leader: do you want to appear invincible, or do you want to earn people’s trust and loyalty? Is leadership all about you, or is it about the people you lead?

For me, vulnerability is part of what it means to be a servant leader. I’m not all the way there yet. I’m still learning.

Be confident. Be steady and consistent. But don’t try to be something you’re not. Be vulnerable.

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A new vantage point

Around 1610, Galileo Galilei, pointing his newly invented telescope at the sky, became the first person to see bulges on both sides of the planet Saturn. He didn’t know what they were. It took 45 years before another astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, figured out that they were rings surrounding the planet.

For 350-plus years since then, every view we had of the rings came from the same vantage point: from outside.

Until last month. For the first time, the Cassini spacecraft slipped between Saturn and the rings, turned its camera away from the planet, and started taking pictures from inside the rings.

Cassini flying inside Saturn's rings
This illustration is part of a NASA animation that shows Cassini’s trip inside the rings. The inset captures an actual image that Cassini sent back.

Following Cassini’s example, I’ve begun considering how I can look at things from new vantage points. If I’ve always looked at something in the same way, have I really seen it in its entirety? Maybe not.

Here are a few things I’m trying to see from new vantage points.

Mergers and acquisitions

My company, Extreme Networks, has acquired parts of 3 different companies over the past year. As a result, our technical writing team is growing rapidly. New people, with all sorts of different backgrounds, are learning our tools, our workflows, and our corporate culture. A lot of anxiety comes with the experience of being part of an acquisition.

I actually have experience with this. I’ve seen things from the other side of an acquisition. Now is a great time for me to remember how it felt — and thereby to help make it easier for the newcomers to our team.

Starting out

My recent participation in the STC Carolina chapter’s mentoring program has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to break into the technical communication field — from finding a specialty (software writer, e-learning developer, scientific editor) to creating a personal brand to simply landing that first job.

Colliding worldviews

Look at the current world scene and you’ll see people with fundamentally different worldviews. More and more, those worldviews seem to be colliding — and the more they collide, like particles in an accelerator, the more sparks seems to fly. The greater the differences seem to become.

I’m still trying to grasp that. More important, I’m trying to understand the people whose worldviews are different from mine. If I can understand the people on the other side, maybe we can find something in common that we can use as a basis for moving forward together. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I don’t know. But I do know that talking beats shouting, so that’s what I try to do.

(If you’d like to try, too, Jesse Lyn Stoner recently shared some practical tips for taking a stand without polarizing others.)

Epilog

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. On Friday its mission will reach its grand finale when it dives into the planet’s atmosphere. When it transmits its last data from inside Saturn’s clouds — a vantage point no one has ever seen — humankind will gain more knowledge about Saturn’s atmosphere than ever before.

How have new vantage points helped you in your professional life? Can you think of other vantage points you’d like to gain?

Informing the public, responsibly

The recent flooding in eastern Texas has engendered a lot of news articles. This one from ProPublica stands out because, in addition to covering a topic of interest, it has all the hallmarks of excellent technical writing.

Let me tell you why.

The lede is up front and to the point

The headline itself conveys the major points: Houston’s Big Dams Won’t Fail. But Many Neighborhoods Will Have to Be Flooded to Save Them. Then, in three brief paragraphs we learn that people are afraid the dams at the Addicks and Barker reservoirs will fail, which would flood much of the city, but despite their fears the dams are safe.

The map is well drawn and emphasizes pertinent data

You can see at a glance the seriousness of the situation. There are the reservoirs, and there are the built-up areas adjacent to them and sometimes inside them. (Yes, inside them. Developers have been allowed to build houses within the boundaries of the reservoirs, on land that — most of the time — is above water level.)

Map showing Houston reservoirs and developed areas around them

Map source: ProPublica

The critical spillways (pink dots) are a bit hard to notice, but they’re called out in the article text.

The spillways, the reservoirs, and Buffalo Bayou, the critical waterway to downtown Houston, are labeled. Less essential details are not.

Background information is explained succinctly

On the assumption that most readers aren’t familiar with Houston’s hydrologic history, the writers provide brief summary information, at pertinent points in the story, about why the two reservoirs were built and how the dams are supposed to work.

Content is organized logically, in short sections

Each section heading is a question, like

  • What are the Addicks and Barker reservoirs? and
  • Why are the spillways a big deal? And what will the impacts of using them be?

The questions build on each other. And unlike with most “frequently asked questions” pages, they’re questions that people actually would ask.

Then each section answers the pertinent question in a few easily digestible paragraphs.

The writing is direct and in the active voice

Picking a paragraph at random:

As of now, the Army Corps says there’s enough excess water in the Addicks Reservoir that some of it is flowing around (not overtopping) one of the auxiliary spillways. The agency originally thought water might also have to flow around the spillways for Barker Reservoir, but now projects that will not be necessary as long as the weather stays good.

The tone is balanced

The article’s tone is businesslike yet reassuring. It reinforces the headline: although this is certainly a big deal, and although people who live near (or in) the reservoirs are going to experience flooding, there’s no cause for general panic.

It’s written collaboratively

Don’t miss the byline. Four different writers are credited for the piece: Kiah Collier of The Texas Tribune, Neena Satija of The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Al Shaw of ProPublica, and Lisa Song of ProPublica. Perhaps one of them, or perhaps an unnamed editor, deserves credit for pulling together everyone’s contributions into a single, coherent piece with consistent tone, vocabulary, and writing style.

I tip my hat to all of them for providing the public with information responsibly and in the proper context.

Postscript: I’m always happy to call out instances of good technical writing that I see in general-interest newspapers and magazines. (Here’s another example, about a different topic.) Do you know of any examples? Please share them in the comments.

 

It’s not your text

Hey, wow. I was looking on the internet and — what do you know? — I found a list.

Yes, I realize that the internet is full of lists. Many of them exist simply to entice us to click. A few might entertain or inform, and then I forget them in 5 minutes.

A very few are worth recommending. One such is this list of rules for editors, compiled by the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre. If you’re in any part of the writing business, hurry on over to The Sun and take a look.

I lingered long over Rule 4: It’s not your text.

You are in the middle of things. You have a responsibility to assist the writer in achieving their purpose. You have a responsibility to the publication to maintain its standards and integrity. You have a responsibility to the reader, the party most commonly overlooked in these operations, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. Your personal preferences are subordinate to these responsibilities.

quill penSo it is with editors, and so it is with technical writers as well. We have a responsibility to the company we represent, to maintain its standards and integrity (to the extent it has them), and to present its products in such a way that our readers can use them effectively.

We also have a responsibility to the reader, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. This is our paramount responsibility, because this is the one we have to get right. We might get away without perfectly reflecting the company’s style or brand image, or without perfectly describing the product’s features. But if we don’t meet the reader’s needs, so that they stop reading and walk away (or dial tech support), we’ve failed completely.

stone bridgeI’ve heard the technical writer described as the bridge between subject-matter expert and reader. I used to bristle at that metaphor: I thought it implied a passivity on the part of the technical writer, as if we were nothing more than a conduit carrying information from one actor to another. “People walk on bridges,” I remember complaining.

Now, in my old age, I’m more comfortable with the bridge metaphor. Maybe I have a higher opinion of bridges: some of them are engineering marvels, and even the simplest ones are mighty useful. But mostly, I think, I better understand that it’s not my text.

Yes, I play an important role in the transaction between expert and reader. But it’s not about my personal preferences. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

My job is to make the information good, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s not my text.

Look that up: the lexicographer’s conundrum

Old dictionary advertisement

“The one dictionary that puts your family in command of today’s English”

Some of the best stuff you’ll read on Twitter is the wit and wisdom of Kory Stamper and her fellow lexicographers — including the fresh and very woke tweets from Merriam-Webster itself. Those tweets prove the point that Stamper strives to make in her book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries: that lexicography and lexicographers aren’t as boring as you thought.

Stamper makes her point well, in a distinctively breezy, engaging, and elbow-nudging way. Although a few of her chapters run long, going a little deeper into the weeds than necessary, I recommend the book for anyone who’s interested in writing or language in general.

Old dictionary advertisement

“Accept Nothing Less Than the SUPREME Authority”

The best chapter is the one titled “Marriage,” in which Stamper deftly portrays the tension between lexicographers, who know that their job is to describe the language as it is, and their employers, who for more than a century have touted their dictionaries as the absolute authorities on how our language should be used.

Stamper emphasizes that our language is a river, and lexicographers work tirelessly to discover and track all of its whorls and eddies. It took her weeks, for example, just to update the various definitions of take.

(My use of took in that last sentence is sense 10e of the definition for take, the verb. I haven’t even mentioned take, the noun.)

Yet since the days of Noah Webster, at least, dictionaries have contended in the marketplace by claiming to be authoritative, by insisting that they alone can give you a mastery of words. Funk & Wagnalls, in its pre-Laugh In days, trumpeted that its dictionary contained all human knowledge since the world began.

Old dictionary advertisement

“All human knowledge since the world began is concentrated in this one mighty book”

Even today, Stamper’s own Merriam-Webster displays these words on your browser tab when you display its home page: America’s most trusted online dictionary.

How should we reconcile the difference between the marketer’s insistence on prescribing and the lexicographer’s work of describing — especially in an age when dictionaries rely on online ads, not sales of printed books, to survive financially?

Stamper doesn’t give an answer, and I suppose there probably isn’t one. People expect dictionaries to tell them how to write (and speak), while lexicographers compile dictionaries to reflect what people are writing.

It truly is a question or problem having only a conjectural answer — sense 2a of the definition for conundrum.

Meanwhile, our language flows on, whorling and eddying as it pleases.

Finding your own community and security

Last week I described a bygone day of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees. While I doubt that day will ever return, I proposed a few ways in which managers can give their people a healthy, realistic sense of community and security.

Maybe you’re not a manager or a leader. You’re a rank-and-file worker, and you’re not in a position to try out any of those things I talked about.

Today we’ll look at it from your point of view. What can you, as a worker, do to increase your sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both?

Here are a few ideas. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Do new things

Network switches in a rack

Happy ending to the video: the switches are installed in a rack.

Last month I made my first live-action video (as opposed to screen shots). The video shows how to install network switches in a rack. It won’t win an Academy Award, but it’s taught me a lot about writing scripts, planning video and photo shoots, recording audio, and editing the whole package. I know those new skills will serve me well on other projects.

Try doing new things whenever you can. You’ll increase your value to your employer, and you’ll add new skills to your repertoire.

The idea is not to make yourself indispensable (as if you could). The idea is to make yourself flexible so that you’re ready to take on new roles or, if need be, to land a new job.

Don’t be a wallflower

I know. You’re introverted. So am I. You won’t see me in the middle of the action at the next company party. But I’ll be there, and I won’t be hiding behind the potted fern either. I hope you’ll be there too, because you can’t feel like you belong to a community if you don’t act like you belong to the community.

Flowers along a wall

Wallflowers are pretty. But they don’t reflect — or inspire — loyalty.

When I mentioned loyalty, remember that I described it as two-way loyalty. You want to know that your company’s loyal to you, while you’re being loyal to your company.

Loyalty to the company doesn’t just mean following the rules, showing up on time, and always speaking well of Good Old Spacely Sprockets. It also means — it especially means — being loyal to the people who make up the company, the people who work alongside you, the people who might want to feel like they’re part of a community too.

So say hello to them. Chat with them at the water cooler. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pass up the company party.

Know yourself — and trust yourself

Maybe, even though things look the same, your workplace has changed. Your car’s in the same parking space. Your cubicle walls are the same shade of — what color is that? But you know things are different. There was such a great vibe when you hired on, but today — for whatever reason — all the joy is gone.

Maybe the management team changed. Maybe a merger or an acquisition upended the culture. Maybe the company’s slipping in the marketplace and everybody’s stressed out about it.

It’s normal to feel uneasy, even helpless, in the face of changes like these. Yet it’s vital to keep your balance. How? Make sure your center of gravity is secure. Take stock of yourself. Remember what’s really important to you. Decide what you are, and are not, willing to do.

I once joined a company I admired for the high quality of its work and for its generosity of spirit. Over time, through a series of setbacks and managerial changes, I saw those good attributes fade away.

Eventually I saw that I was part of a company that cut corners and tried to squeeze as much money as it could from customers and employees.

How long would it be before I was called on to do something that went against my values? Before I was asked to betray a client’s trust by passing off poor-quality work? I had to decide what mattered to me: which lines I could cross and which ones I couldn’t, even if it meant losing my job.

Fortunately, I never had to make such a drastic choice. But by drawing those lines, by determining that I wouldn’t cross them, I empowered myself. I gained a bit of control over my situation — and with it, a sense of security. I knew that, even if things around me went sideways, I could stand firm and hold onto my integrity.

I also kept my resume up to date and constantly checked job postings, which gave me an additional sense of control — hence, again, a sense of security. I kept in close touch with my professional network, so that they became my community. Eventually it paid off: I found a new job in a much better situation.

This work — this taking stock and drawing boundary lines — is something you have to do for yourself. You can’t delegate it. You can’t get it from reading a book or a blog post. It’s uniquely yours. Don’t neglect it, even if right now you’re happy with your situation.

Things change. Make sure you’re ready.

Recapturing community and security

The vast Roebling Mill, near Trenton, New Jersey, produced thousands of miles of steel cable for huge public-works projects like the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. At its peak, around World War II, it employed 5,000 people.

Most of those employees lived in a planned community, also called Roebling, in red-brick houses that had been constructed by the Roebling family expressly for their workers to live in.

The loyalty was palpable

When you were part of Roebling, you walked to work beside your neighbors along the leafy streets, through the gate house and down the hill to the factory site. Afterward you walked back together. Perhaps you stopped at the (subsidized) general store or at one of the taverns before going home to your family.

You were part of a community in every sense of the word.

roebling-aerial2.png

The town of Roebling (foreground) and the steel mill in their heyday (Source: Hagley Digital Archives)

Today the mill buildings are gone, although the town with its brick houses and leafy streets remains. The stories of the mill and its people are told in the Roebling Museum, located in the old gate house.

The stories describe a remarkable esprit de corps, a strong bond between co-workers and neighbors who took great pride in their work, whose families gathered together on front porches, whose children competed together on the town’s sports teams.

When you were part of Roebling, the loyalty — yours to the company, and the company’s to you — was palpable.

Nothing lasts forever

When I visited the Roebling Museum earlier this month, those stories reminded me of my first few years at IBM. There I was steeped in a corporate culture that emphasized longevity and two-way loyalty. I never sang songs from the IBM hymn book, but some of my older colleagues had.

On the annual opinion survey, we were asked whether we agreed with a series of statements — one of which was I am confident that, as long as I do a good job, there will be a place for me at IBM. The hoped-for result was that all of us would mark Strongly Agree.

After a while they quietly took that statement out of the survey. After another while, for many of us, the statement proved to be false.

Nothing lasts forever. The Roebling Mill closed for good in 1974 after years of decline. IBM’s first layoffs (sorry, resource actions) took place in 1993. My pink slip came in 2002.

Trying to recapture a little of the old

I’m not suggesting that we can, or even should, return to those days of unswerving loyalty, of living in the safety of the corporate cocoon.

Still, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction.

Do you work in a place where you feel really connected with your co-workers, with a shared sense of mission and a shared pride in what you do?

Some of you do work in a place like that. But many of you don’t. Perhaps some of you have never experienced what it’s like.

Do you work in a place where you know that your employer has your back, that they care about you as a person and as a professional?

Again, while some of you do, I’ll wager that many more of you don’t.

Community and security

While it’s foolish and naive for workers to believe that the company will always take care of them, there’s value in identifying yourself with a company and in bonding with co-workers.

And while there are no guarantees, there’s also value in knowing that as long as you do a good job, the company will do its best to ensure that it has a place for you.

Community and security. I’ve worked in situations (like those early days at IBM) where I’ve felt like I had a lot of both. I’ve also worked in situations where I had essentially none.

I can tell you which one is better.

So, as managers and leaders, how can we give our workers a healthy, realistic sense of community and security?

Here are a few ideas. I hope you’ll add more ideas in the comments.

  • Let your people know that you value them for the people they are, not just for the work they do. Recognize that some of them might be hurting, having been betrayed by a previous employer they thought they could trust.
  • Invest in your people’s professional development. When you pay for someone to attend a training course, you’re saying that you can see them contributing in the long term, not just on the present project.
  • Let your people have fun together. Even if their families don’t gather on front porches, you can help create an environment where they feel connected by things other than their day-to-day work.

As workers, how can we increase our sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both? Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.

I’d love to hear your story of community and security: how you’ve coped with losing them, or maybe how you’ve lost them and managed to regain them.

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading, and he didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts (it’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to talk with you”). He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) recognized them by naming him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

Dazzling their giddy readers

Back in 1946 an unnamed editor at the Saturday Evening Post had a bone to pick with the then-current Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. Specifically, he (given the era and the medium, the editor most likely was a he) was worked up because the dictionary would present all of the various definitions for a word without sufficiently distinguishing the generally accepted ones from the offbeat or archaic ones.

Post cover showing two cleaning ladies in an empty theater

A classic Post cover from, yes, 1946 (source: Saturday Evening Post)

As quoted on Twitter by Peter Sokolowsky, a contemporary lexicographer for Webster’s, the editor had this to say:

Is There a Lexicographer in the House?

This magazine, and every other magazine, we suppose, has frequent recourse to a dictionary for enlightenment on the proper usage of words that crop up in manuscripts. As we are an American publication employing what is called the American language, we use an American dictionary. It is a big, fat, leather-bound volume, heavy enough to snap a man’s instep if it should fall off its stoutly contrived stand. It is also a big, fat fraud. In most instances, it is no more a guide to correct meaning than astrological writings and the prophecies of Nostradamus are guides to the future. Its scholarship, if such pack-rat hoarding of oddities can be called scholarship, is of the on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other variety. Any meaning, no matter how far-fetched or archaic, can be justified by anyone willing to risk his eyesight on the small print. It doesn’t deserve the title of dictionary, although it is highly ranked in lexicographers’ circles; it is largely an anthology of word meanings and it serves only to compound confusion. The English language, from which our own derives, is an unusually lush language, and our English cousins try in a scholarly way to encourage a reasonably disciplined approach to it. The ungoverned tendency here in America is to admit every novelty with which frontier wits and modern saloon columnists have sought to dazzle their giddy readers.

This seems to be as good a time as any for our lexicographers to get together and work toward some semblance of authority in their works. It is even conceivable that one courageous lexicographer with a sound background and a decent respect for the virility of the American language could cut away some of the spurious trimmings without injuring the tree. Is there such a lexicographer in the house? If not, our language stands in danger of growing so many sucker branches that we won’t be able to see the tree for the suckers.

It’s entertaining to read the rant of a 1946 magazine editor. I’d like to go back in time and ask him what he meant by the virility of the American language.

Whatever he meant, his plea for “a decent respect” for the language gets to the real purpose of dictionaries — especially for those of us who write and edit.

Photo of Webster's Second edition

The “big, fat, leather-bound fraud”: Webster’s Second Edition (source: Amazon)

I think that most writers and editors, and certainly most lexicographers, agree that dictionaries should describe how words are used rather than prescribing how they should be used. Yet merely describing, without making some judgment calls, isn’t helpful.

Why is that? Well, why does a writer consult a dictionary? To ensure that the words we choose will communicate our intended meaning to our readers.

That means we have to know, first, how our readers (our audience, in the parlance of technical writing) will understand the words, based on their backgrounds and their frame of mind. Are they academics? Farmers? Politicians? Are they more or less comfortable with new usage, with slang, with meanings that derive from popular culture?

Then, second, we have to know the words themselves. This is where the dictionary comes in. It should be able to tell me whether the words I have in mind are going to connect with the readers I’m writing for.

If it does, true communication is possible. If it doesn’t, then as a writer I’m simply throwing darts in the dark and hoping they hit something. Or worse, I’m a frontier wit seeking to dazzle my giddy readers.

Please, no. Anything but that.

Epilog: The editor, Sokolowsky notes, eventually got his wish, although he had to wait a while. Webster’s Third, published in 1961, was far more discriminating. In Sokolowsky’s words, it jettisoned the all-but-the-kitchen-sink approach — and that policy has continued to the present day.

All or nothing

All or nothing. It seems to be the way of the world. But it’s no way to manage your career.

In baseball, a home run is the best thing you can do as a hitter. You take a big swing, you feel the satisfying jolt as you hit the ball, and the crowd stands up to cheer as you trot around the bases.

Babe_Ruth_by_Paul_Thompson,_1920

When Babe Ruth retired, he held the record for most home runs — and the record for most strikeouts.

The worst thing you can do is strike out. You don’t hit the ball. You don’t get to run. You just slink back to the bench, defeated and humiliated.

Home run. Strikeout. All or nothing.

25 years ago, major-league hitters had an all-or-nothing outcome — a home run or a strikeout — about one-sixth of the time.

Last year, it was almost a quarter of the time. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent, trending toward all-or-nothingness. Toward the extremes.

It’s not just baseball, either. Here in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the world, the political middle is melting away. “Moderates” are becoming an endangered species. More and more, you’re either an avid liberal or a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. It’s hip to be extreme.

Or is it? There’s one area where I hope you’re not an all-or-nothing person.

When I started my career in technical writing, it wasn’t long before I became a specialist: a technical writer for software. In that role I was familiar with the principles of UX (user experience), but there were other professionals who specialized in that.

In my professional network were other technical writers who specialized in writing about pharmaceuticals, policies and procedures, and grant proposals.

I view specialization as a form of all-or-nothingness. You can do one specific thing. You can become really good at it. With some effort I might’ve become the best software technical writer in the world, hitting a home run every time. But would that have given me the skills and experience to step into a different role?

What about you? Are you trying to become the best in the world in one specialized thing? Or are you broadening your skill set so that you can move from one role to another? Are you learning new skills and making sure that you’re at least conversant, if not expert, in a variety of fields related to your core skills?

If that’s you, then good for you. You’ve found the key to staying current and remaining employable.

Good for you, because you’ll have a much easier time adapting to changing job markets and requirements than someone with a narrow area of specialization.

A baseballGood for you, because even though some hiring managers take the all-or-nothing approach — you have to have exactly this experience and these skills before I’ll consider you — the smart ones understand that your breadth of experience will enable you to fit easily into the job — and grow with the job as it evolves over time.

So, even if the rest of the world is trending toward all-or-nothingness, I hope you’ll overcome the temptation to let your career trend that way.

You can hit lots of home runs but strike out whenever you’re confronted with something unfamiliar or new. Or you can develop diverse skills that enable you to succeed in diverse ways — hitting singles, doubles, and triples, along with the occasional home run, and only rarely striking out.

How have you been able to learn and evolve, avoiding the trap of all-or-nothingness? Share your story in the comments section.

Image by Paul Thompson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons