Monday, July 21, 2014

Hart Crane: words

"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The CIA's rules for writing

Yup, it has them. A freedom of information request brought them in out of the cold. Here's what the spymasters think their underlings should know.

All writers using the guide, it says, "are assumed already to possess the three essentials of intelligence analysis: knowledge, clarity of thought, and good judgment. No writing, however skilled, can conceal deficiencies in these requisites.”

See if these rules are helpful for you:
  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.
This is a commandment for any business writer.
For the most part, Directorate of Intelligence analysts are writing for generalists. Generalists may have deep expertise in specific areas, such as missile technology or a country’s tribal politics; nonetheless, the analyst’s goal is to do away with the specialist’s jargon and to put everything into layman’s language. If your audience consists of just a few people who thoroughly understand the subject (or who cannot be trusted to follow the reasoning without jargon to guide them), by all means sprinkle your piece with technical terms. Most of the time, however, write for the nonexpert.
I'm glad this secret leaked.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Zadie Smith's rules for writing

Zadie Smith is a British novelist, essayist and short story writer. She has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University's Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on September 1, 2010.
Here are her rules for writing:
  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.
I particularly like the practicality of 1, 2, and 5. These are sturdy rules you learn either from experience or from an accomplished writer like Smith.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Very important: how to not use "very"

"Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." ~ Mark Twain

It seems this word very once meant truthful. That was back in the 13th Century, when people didn't have anything better to do than use words correctly.

If you think of verily and verify, you get the original idea.

Somewhere along the line, it came to mean grievous or extreme. Somebody should be held to account for this switcheroo.

Is there is a life after very? Why, yes. We're just too lazy to discover it.

Amanda Patterson offers a helpful chart for those who wish to banish this most useless of words. Print this out and tape it to your computer.

We need no proof that good usage has practical value, but hear the words of author Nancy H. Kleinbaum: "So avoid using the word very because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys -- to woo women -- and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Going with the flow

“May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.” 

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

It's hard enough to write without having to worry about whether you're "in the zone" or "in the flow." If you're fretting that, you're doing it wrong.

The concept of flow is quite real, but it has a specific meaning. It's not some blast of inspiration from above. Wait for that to write and you'll slip from this life at your keyboard, covered in cobwebs.

The chap who came up with this concept is a Hungarian psychologist with an impossible name -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-muh-hy-ee). Here's how he sees it:
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.
To achieve flow it is suggested that:
  • One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  • One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete the task at hand.
One writer suggests:
Perhaps the two most important ingredients for flow are motivation and ability in the person. If you can’t paint worth a lick, no amount of motivation will let you abandon conscious effort, because you just aren’t good enough. Conversely, a world-class author won’t produce anything of value if she has no desire to even sit at the computer, let alone write. The more you have of both, the easier reaching flow becomes.
The lesson, then, is to discover where what you love doing overlaps what you are capable of doing well.

More insight for writers comes from Romanian journalist Simina Mistreanu, who interviewed seven award-winning journalists and came up with this insights:
Reporting and being part of other people’s lives triggers flow. These journalists find purpose in shedding light onto difficult, often heart-wrenching issues. That connection — between mission and joy — was echoed by the seven accomplished writers who use longform narratives to cover sensitive social issues. 
I don't know that Csikszentmihalyi explicitly included a sense of mission as necessary for flow. It makes sense, however, in that how a writer views his work informs his passion and motivation. In other words, his writing has meaning.

In the end, the only way to find your zone is to sit down and start writing. "I write when I'm inspired," Peter De Vries said, "and see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Keep your subject and verb close

Together forever.
A simple way to add clarity to your writing is to keep the subject and verb of a sentence close together. When they are separated by a lot of other words, readers have to hunt for the words that belong together. This can be especially confusing if the extra words include other verbs.
Bad Good writers, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion, imagine a magnet between subject and verb. 
Good Good writers imagine a magnet between subject and verb, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion.
Here's another example, this one from, ironically, the federal government.
The natural word order of an English sentence is subject-verb-object. This is how you first learned to write sentences, and it's still the best. When you put modifiers, phrases, or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for the user to understand you. 
Consider this long, convoluted sentence: 
If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy, and the retiring member must sell, the member's interest in the company. 
In essence, the sentence says: The company may buy a retiring member's interest. All the rest of the material modifies the basic idea, and should be moved to another sentence or at least to the end of the sentence.  
Remember boys and girls, Big Brother is watching you write.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Please don't say this

I'm begging you.

For the past 38 years Lake Superior State University has compiled a list of words and expressions that should be banished from the English language.

This year, the expression Americans would most like banished is, predictably, "the fiscal cliff." Other top submissions of words and expressions needing banishment:

Kick the can down the road: A child's game has turned into the way legislators express their inability to do their jobs. Rassmussen reports that just 5 percent of Americans think Congress is doing an excellent job. Perhaps it's time voters kicked these do-nothings to the curb.

Double-down: Oh stop it.

YOLO: This expression, which stands for "you only live once," is used by every knucklehead in the country to explain why they narrowly missed being on this year's listing of Darwin award winners. At least the expression "it seemed like a good idea at the time" intimates you won't be doing a similarly stupid action again soon. In this case, the YOLO set appear unrepentant and unwilling to learn.

Spoiler alert: Expression used to ridicule the one member of the YOLO set who has the functioning brain cells to say: "Uh, not a good idea...."

Bucket List: Five-year-old movie about the things two cancer patients wanted to do before they died. See YOLO and get over it already.

Trending: Trend, turned into a verb, is ever so much more annoying than when "Googling," which was a made-up name, became a verb. Hopefully, like pet rocks, this fad of talking up what's trending will fade.

Superfood: This refers to anything that hasn't been triple-processed; hydrogenated; dried; or placed into a plastic wrapper that will keep it fresh for 25 years. People used to call this food.

Guru: Unless you're in an ashram, you are probably referring to an expert.