Tag Archives: writing

When you have something shocking to say

The news reports buckled my knees. According to a Pennsylvania grand jury, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the state sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period.

handwritten letter about a case of child abuse

Image source: Josh Bernoff

The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.

Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?

The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.

In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”

Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.

I hope you’ll add your comments as well. Continue reading

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Lift a glass for Grammar Day

Grammar Day - Twitter hashtagStarted in 2008 by author Martha Brockenbrough, National Grammar Day is a time to celebrate, and foster an appreciation for, clear writing. It’s observed every year on March fourth — the date that, when pronounced, forms a complete sentence.

A few years ago, Mark Allen — of ACES: The Society for Editing — started a Grammar Day haiku contest on Twitter. This year, tired (I guess) of counting syllables, Mark switched the format to limericks.

The judges must’ve liked my limericks. This one took first place:

“Faulty parallelism, you see,
I eschew most assiduously.”
Thus said Constable Brown
As he sat himself down
And ate limburger, ham, and sipped tea.

And this one tied for second:

Old Frumpengruff’s might’ly perturbed
When he hears that a noun has been verbed.
Though it’s gone on for ages,
Still he (18th c.) fusses and (14th) rages —
In high dudgeon that cannot be (16th) curbed.

I’m delighted and honored, of course. But really, it’s all about celebrating clear writing. Take time to read all of the winning limericks — and take time every day to celebrate our language and deploy it in the name of clear communication.

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 I’ve come to understand that part of my role in that transaction is to get lost. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

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

A passage particularly fine

I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.

Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.

I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor

I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.

He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.

By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.

Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.

I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.

It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.

You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.

Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.

So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.

Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.

It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.

(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)

Baseball, football, and just the right choice of words

As we embark on the first baseball season in 68 years without Vin Scully behind the mic, thank goodness we still have this classic comedy bit from George Carlin.

carlin

Image source: georgecarlin.com

I have a writerly purpose in sharing it with you today. Carlin’s piece demonstrates how, by choosing just the right words, a writer creates a mood and a sophisticated set of images for the reader. In this case it’s actually 2 moods and 2 sets of images.

We see, for example, that football is played on a rigidly structured gridiron, and baseball is played on an elegant diamond.

Football comes across as weighty, even sinister (down) while baseball is light and airy (up).

Football delivers an abrupt kick and slaps us with a warning; baseball provides relief and freedom to stretch.

While I’d never discount Carlin’s deft delivery, I think it’s his pitch-perfect choice of words that makes this piece the classic that it is.

With your writerly sensitivities thus enriched, sit back and enjoy the work of a master comic and master wordsmith.


I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

BaseballBaseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs – what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups – who’s up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

footballIn football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog…
In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there’s not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

(Transcript source: Baseball Almanac. The original source, of course, is the inimitable George Carlin himself.)

On Limerick Day

I just learned that today is Limerick Day. (Not National Limerick Day, apparently. Good. I like it when the whole universe can join in.)

As a serious writer of nonfiction I struggle with this particular form. It’s like, well….I ‘ll just let these speak for themselves.

Quill penIt’s Limerick Day – y’all have a ball
Writing doggerel sure to enthrall
Me, I’m gonna go fishing
(Beats sitting here wishing
I had any talent at all)

A technical writer in Philly
Penned limericks bawdy and silly
He had a grand time
Crafting meter and rhyme
Til his editor made him rewrite them all to conform to corporate style