Category Archives: Words and language

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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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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A whole new place for an apostrophe

Sorry about this.  I promise I will only ever post the really odd ones.  I’ve never before seen an apostrophe here.  It’s when it should be its, yeah.  And the other way round.  But not its’. I’m impressed.

Apostrophe madness at Kew

Apostrophe madness at Kew

This is from one of the gift shops in Kew Gardens or Kew Gardens’ as we should presumably write it.

Simple vows for singletons

Today I found out something interesting about individuality, which seems a useful thing to explore a couple of weeks before I marry.
My fiance and I spent this morning sitting outside a cafe working out what wedding vows we want to use. We are having a humanist ceremony and are enjoyong the freedom that gives us. However, many of the people who suggest vows and readings for weddings combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We’ve had to trim and shape much of what we found.
It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it will be. Shakespeare and Chaucer could handle the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes so we were pruning out jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap.
However, we struggled with one idea.  We respect each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own nuroses on to each other and we do at least know we shouldn’t burden each other with expectations. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.
In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  It’s not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.
Interesting, huh?

Today I confirmed something about individuality, which is that it hasn’t been around that long.  An interesting thing to remind myself of less than three weeks before I marry.

My fiancé and I sat outside a cafe this morning working out what wedding vows we want. (It will be a humanist ceremony and we are enjoying the freedom it gives us). However, many of the suggested vows and readings were written by people who combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We had to trim and shape much of what we found.

It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it is. Shakespeare and Chaucer handled the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes just fine, so words that were good enough for them were good enough for us.  We happily pruned away the jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap, drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by.

However, we struggled with one idea.  We value each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own neuroses on to each other, and we do at least know we shouldn’t lay expectations on each other. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.

In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular respecting the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Chaucer and Shakespeare lived in a world where people were subjects not citizens, where god was in his heaven and every now and again divinely appointed a king.  So respecting the individual is not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.  Before Luther, no-one needed or used the words.

Interesting, huh?

Not a number

Executive Leadership - Jaques and Clement

Executive Leadership - Jaques and Clement

Some years ago I was in a meeting where someone said the equivalent of: “We aim to have 80% of the balls being blue” .

Me, I like to understand things, so I said:

“Do you mean that each ball will be two colours, 4/5ths blue and 1/5th white, or do you mean that 80 balls in a hundred will be entirely blue and 20 balls in a hundred will be entirely white?”

Actually I wasn’t as articulate as that, but that was the question I was asking.

He missed the point the first time, so I rephrased it.

He missed the point the second time, and when I drew breath for the third time, he cut me off and snarled at me “It’s just an expression”.

I can only assume he was referring to the 80/20 rule.

I took a deep breath, and said … nothing.  Nothing at all.  What was there to say?  What I wanted to say was “it’s not a bleeping expression, it’s a number” but I was so astonished by his remark that I couldn’t think of a way to phrase it without swearing.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this is an example of what Jaques and Clement call ‘hollow language’ in their book Executive Leadership.  By this they mean the language used by people who don’t really understand what they are saying.  They can barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk.  Me, I just call it being a tosser.

More low flying apostrophes

It’s wrong of me to pick on a  comment posted in haste on a web site without a preview feature and critique the use of apostrophes isn’t it?

Yes it is.  Of course it is.  So I’ll let you critique them yourself:

Was astounded at how the country is divided into very tight areas where Sikhs, Bengali’s, Kashmiri Muslims, Pakistani Muslims and Hindu’s live.  (The TimesOnline)

Ach, I can’t resist.  There  seems to be an awkwardness about pluralising words that end in a vowel.  What do you think?  And every day I see naked posessives stripped of their apostrophes, following the german usage.  

Do you know something?  I find this change in the language exciting.  

MS Word renders me speechless

Why did we let Bill Gates control the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Orwell and Hemingway?  See screenshot below:

 

'... a owner ...' PUH-lease!

'... a owner ...' PUH-lease!

Arrrgggh!

The faint thudding you can hear is the sound of a brick wall not crumbling as my head hits it repeatedly.

Who am I kidding?

Who am I kidding? This blog so is going to include a collection of bizare apostrophes.

My sister took the trouble to scan and email me this particualar peach from the beach.  Good, innit?  I particularly like NEW S-PAPER’S. 

groceries007

So basic, there’s no apostrophe

I so knew I shouldn’t start blogging about apostrophes.  

I found these in Sainsbury’s the other day.  Ironic, for a company which is so fussy about its own apostrophe.  

Sainsbury's basics, now with missing apostrophe

Sainsbury's basics, now with missing apostrophes

I love this packaging because I think that using the apostrophe for the posessive is a 16th century affectation (as I’ve said elsewhere) and I like the look of the words without excess punctuation.  

It’s also so refreshing to find missing apostrophes, instead of unecessary ones.  Big sis sent me some of those which I’ll post later in the week.  

The socks are ok too.

¿eh?

 

Query that

Query that

I don’t want this blog to turn in to series of photographs of low flying apostrophes but they do seem to fall out of the sky at me.    This one of course is in the right place, but it still amused me.   ‘Tis the season to be jolly?