Category Archives: Simple isn’t Easy

Sign design

If you go into the loo today, you’re in for a big surprise…

This elegant and witty pastiche is in the Lighthouse in Glasgow.  Makes me feel the need to go just by looking at it.

This second one from Espresso Mondo in Edinburgh is more worrying: the arrow means I find it hard not to read it as a process diagram.

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Bait and switch

Look what my clever husband spotted in another Scottish Railway station yesterday:

Complicated switch - simple instructions

Complicated switch - simple instructions

It seems that the switch in the previous post was replaced and the sign only partially updated. SoRB was right, and I feel mean and dirty now.

How to improve your writing – 2

This the second of my occasional posts on writing simply and clearly, and here we consider how to tidy up a piece of text once you’ve got something written down. Examples are drawn from How to improve your writing 1 – the first part of this two-parter.

Work out what your verbal tics are, and edit your text to remove them

Make this a habit.   Here are some examples:

  1. Remove all adverbs and adjectives and see what is left
  2. Adverbs and adjectives are words that describe or qualify other words (the red balloon burst loudly). The following text won a Golden Bull in 2008 from the Plain English campaign:

    ‘Our goal at Balfour Beatty is to deliver consistent, long-term growth to our shareholders ... By becoming the partner of choice tosophisticated owners in our chosen disciplines and geographies, we believe we will achieve secure, industry best margins in ourcontracting activities and substantial, sustainable equity returns from our long-term investment portfolio.’

    As you can see, this isn’t much better but it has helped us work out if the text contained anything of substance and how to re-organise it.

    Our goal is to deliver long term growth to our shareholders, and we believe we’ll achieve this by becoming the partner of owners in our disciplines and geographies.

    Sometimes, when you do this you’ll discover that what you’ve written goes round in circles.  If it does, cut it out.

  3. Turn the passive voice into the active voice.
  4. Making up an example was quicker than finding one.  The passive voice is considered to be particularly bad in process documentation because it is easy to forget about an actor who is never mentioned.

    This becomes:

    I found it quicker to make up an example than find one.  I particularly dislike it when a writer or analyst uses the passive voice in process documentation (the mat is sat upon) because I have no idea who is doing the sitting (the cat, presumably).

  5. Look out for and eliminate any personal tics you may have.
  6. I have a fondness for -ing verbs.  Here are some that I’ve cut out from an earlier version of this post:

    This is about getting across information or ideas  …  anything which is just expanding or supporting the main points … the most important point you are making …  preparing our audience with subsidiary points and building up to a conclusion …

    You have already seen how I got rid of those.

Don’t worry that you’ll  squeeze all the character out of your writing because you won’t: it is more important to be clear than quirky and you can be quirky and clear at the same time.

Have fun.


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Re-validating the wheel

Crop Circle Swirl (image in the public domain)

Crop Circle Swirl (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bit of fun for a Friday. Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for answers.  I should give that a capital A really.  Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for Answers.

Answers are good: when you know the answer to a question you can move on to the next one.   That’s how progress works, by not reinventing the wheel. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, and all that.

However, there is a danger in this.  Sure, no-one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel but we should certainly revisit the blue-prints every now and again.  If we didn’t, we’d still be burning witches because we’d settled for a crude and inaccurate answer to the question of why a single woman might prefer to live by herself.

There’s a sequence of thinking that goes something like this:

We don’t have an explanation for crop circles…

… so we say “it’s a mystery” meaning we haven’t yet found the answer …

… which is an un-answer: it is an unanswered question to ponder or to research or to put on one side until more data is available …

… but people don’t like un-answers,  so they answer the question, saying “it’s a Mystery” (meaning aliens or ley lines or the Ancients) …

… and the question’s been answered and doesn’t need revisiting because it is a done deal …

… but it’s a non-answer which shuts down debate …

… so when we get more knowledge, and it turns out to be two blokes and a plank of wood …

… only some of us say “ah, the mystery is solved” while others say “No, no, no! We knew the answer already.  It’s a Mystery”.

The difference between answers and non-answers is invidious.  They can be hard to tell apart because they both feel like closure.  The wheel’s invented. Nothing to see here. Move along now.  By contrast, un-answered questions itch and scratch and nag and gnaw away at us; and that’s good, that way progress lies.

Many invalid assumptions are based on non-answers masquerading as answers. We have to check that the wheel we are using has an axle in the middle. Questioning those assumptions helps us root out the non-answers. But it is uncomfortable because we then have to live with those itchy, scratchy, nagging, gnawing un-answered questions, and keep them open, keep on asking them, possibly for ever. We have to be willing to live with not knowing all the answers about what Tim Minchin calls ‘this beautiful complex wonderfully unfathomable natural world’.

Ach, he puts it much better than I do, and this is the Friday Fun that I promised you, though I worry about the red wine and the white carpet.

Enjoy:


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How to improve your writing – 1

How do you improve your writing skills?  I was asked this recently, and here are Ben’s Top Tips.  It does depend on what sort of thing you are writing of course, but if you want to communicate clearly and quickly there are some definite dos and don’ts.  First, let me recommend you do a warm-up.

Practice writing summaries

The more often you practice sorting the wheat from the chaff and discarding the chaff, the more you will  improve how well you write.  At the same time, you’ll learn to pick out the key points in what you read more quickly, and your critical thinking skills will improve.  It’s  a triple whammy, which  is why I have put it at the top of the list.

Writing a précis or summary is simple but that doesn’t mean it is easy: take almost any piece of text, estimate the number of words in it (count the number of words in the first ten lines, divide by 10 and multiply by the number of lines), and re-write it at one third of its original length.  Or a fifth. Or a tenth. This forces you to work out what it actually says (not always easy) and to get rid of supporting points and padding.  It gets easier with practice and there is no substitute.  I really cannot recommend this enough.

The Pyramid Principle

This is Barbara Minto’s not mine – so read the details in her book.  This isn’t an exercise: this is how you write clear and simple prose.

Put your most important point first and then expand on it in an orderly way. We find it hard to write like this because talking works best the other way round: we soften up our audience with minor points and deliver a knock-out conclusion. It is easy to hold someone’s attention when you are talking to them, but  a reader’s attention will wander off if they don’t know why they are reading something. Your writing is not a joke: it doesn’t require a set-up and a punch-line.

To test if you’ve got this right, read the first line of each paragraph and skip the rest.  If a reader can do this and get all your key points then you’ve followed the pyramid principle. Think of this as turning bullet points into prose if you must.

This discipline improves your thinking skills: you have to know what your key points are to make each one the first sentence of a new paragraph, and it soon becomes painfully obvious when your thoughts are muddled or vapid.

This is time consuming but rewarding.  It is time consuming because it forces you to review the text several times and to move ideas up and down the page like pieces in a puzzle.  But it is rewarding because you cut out duplication and your final text is easy to read and understand.

This was originally the first part of a longer post, but I’ve decided to split it in two.  These are the most important points anyway, and I didn’t want to confuse you.

No-one gets it right the first time, so the final tip is: revise, revise, revise.


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Ask a silly question

Friendship WheelAsk a silly question’, my father used to say  ‘and you get a silly answer’.  I have one dataset at the moment which I am using for two different reports: the first is  an internal strategy report, and the second is the dissertation for my MSc. This not only demonstrates once again the power of the question to drive the discussion, it also demonstrates the different concerns of business and academia.

It’s like one of those irregular verbs:

  • I want to  know how my colleagues have used Web 2.0 tools over the past 18 months or so.
  • My boss wants to know if they’ve been used responsibly or if it has turned into a cross between FaceBook and the comment threads in You Tube.
  • My dissertation supervisor thinks I should explore the way that network groups cut across formal power structures outlined in organisational charts.

I’ll freely accept that my question is just too vague.  Answering my boss’s question has been simple but time consuming: select a sample and then click and look.  Repeat.  (Incidentally, it turns out that the tools have been used entirely responsibly, which shouldn’t really be a surprise.)

The interesting question of course, is the one that my dissertation supervisor is steering me towards: this is the one about how the spider’s web of contacts and favours works within organisations and how (or whether) Web 2.0 tools has supported them.  That will require some delicate questioning, and I’m not sure how to approach it.

So just now I am drowning in data, but until I’ve decided on my questions, I have no idea how to slice it and dice it or what answers I’ll find.

 

Shock news: Post-modernist says something interesting

George Orwell's 1984If communication is the key to knowledge work, then why do people communicate like this:

We present immaterial labour 2.0 as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

I had to stop and translate it word for word. Let’s assume that ‘immaterial labour 2.0’ means something: let’s call it ‘working with web 2.0 tools’. Ok, I’ve translated jargon into other jargon, but I do at least understand the second lot. So:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production … etc

I’m going to assume that ‘ambivalent modality’ means ‘a form that’s hard to pin down’. It may not, but let’s go with that for now:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both biopower and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down… etc

But what is ‘biopower’? Or ‘biopolitical production’?  It’s no surprise that a quick google uncovers Foucault. Wikipedia, bless it, says this:

Biopower was a term originally coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the practice of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

Ok… leaving aside that it’s defined as the increase in techniques and not the techniques themselves, we now have:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both the explosion of techniques for controlling people and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down, and … etc

The first and simplest definition of ‘biopolitical’ in Wikipedia is ‘the style of government that regulates populations through biopower (the application and impact of political power on all aspects of human life)’.

So this gives us:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control and subjugation of people by governments and other bodies that is hard to pin down, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

Actually that’s interesting!. Web 2.0 tools aren’t nice and friendly; they are the very stuff of Orwellian supervision? Mmmm.  Much the conclusion of Wiki vs Word (my previous post): the main differences is the audit trail which is the very stuff of accountability.  But why use the word ‘exemplar’ when you could say ‘example’?

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control that is hard to pin down, and as an example of the sea change in how we use popular culture, media, and information and communication technology and how they affect us.

In other words: Big Brother is LinkedIn

No kidding. This is moderately interesting, expecially in the context of the work-place.  It has also taken me 45  minutes to translate a single paragraph and, of course, other meanings can be constructed.

Am I going to read the whole thing? Maybe I will, now I know what it’s about. But why write like that? It’s off-putting and it hides stuff which, on this occasion at any rate, is really interesting.

Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth:

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0:
MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

PS – I still have no idea what the verb ‘to immaterial’ means.


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