Tag Archives: writing

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading

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Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.

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Forget the title

I have, on occasion, gotten responses to my articles published on commercial sites (Slate, The Week, BBC) that have focused on the titles.

Here’s the TL;DR of what follows:

Paid authors on commercial sites don’t write the titles. Forget the titles.

Seriously: When you read an article, the title is probably what drew you into it. Yay for the headline writer. They did their job. Now you’re reading the article. The person who wrote the article is a different person from the person who wrote the title. The article was written first. The title is an ad for the article.

Most people who read articles don’t actually have a clear idea of how articles are made, it turns out. A sparkling example of this came in a comment on one of my articles that was republished on Slate’s Lexicon Valley. The reader clearly assumed that I had written it following the same process he had probably used writing his last essay, which was probably for grade 9 Social Studies:

1) Come up with a topic; make it the title.

2) Start looking things up. Write as you go.

3) Stop when you run out of things.

This, as it happens, is pretty much the opposite of how real professional writers actually write their articles. Here is the sequence I typically go through:

1) Think of an interesting topic for an article. (Occasionally a publication or site that you’ve worked with will suggest a topic and see if you want to write on it. Your answer is probably YES! Writing is a drug that sometimes pays rather than costing.)

2) Do some research to see whether it’s feasible and which way it will actually go.

3) Pitch the topic to the site you want to publish it. (If you’re writing for your own blog, skip this. If you’re writing for a group blog, check with the other contributors to make sure you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.)

4) If they OK it, research the topic. Make notes.

5) Think about how to structure the article.

6) Write the article. Do a draft, revise, feel disgusted, revise thoroughly, restructure, revise, realize you can’t view it with any objectivity anymore, be done. Maybe. Put a provisional title at the top when you start. Change it when you finish, if not before.

7) Send the article to the publication. (If it’s your own blog or one you’re a joint contributor to, you will go with your last title and just publish it. And then maybe look it over in the morning and fix a few things.)

8) The publication’s editor will go over it and tighten it up and change things. If you are wise, you will assume they are right (except where they have accidentally changed the sense, in which case you obviously didn’t write it clearly, so you negotiate a revision if you can). You lack objectivity at this point. Also, they’re paying you, so that counts for something. If they’re not paying you, well, they still have a fresh perspective; how much do you respect them? Anyway, they usually run the changes past you before publishing. Not always.

9) Someone – your editor, perhaps, or some mystical nameless other – will come up with a grabby title for the article. You may or may not get to see it before it is published. (I know one person, exactly ONE person, who gets to write his own titles and they’re used as is. Hi, Dad!)

10) Someone may add theme images with or without captions. You will see them no sooner than any other reader of the publication (website). If they’re really problematic, you can always ask if they can be adjusted, but you would be wise to be quick about it.

So there it is. If you’re reading an article, you may have gotten to it because of the title, sure, but the title is an ad for the article, almost certainly written by someone else. Once you’ve started reading the article, forget the title.

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitiveeat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little sis left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

A grave case of synonym-itis

Some writers go to great lengths to find synonyms for things or acts that they have to refer to repeatedly in a story. They seem to have the idea that this adds flavour and depth and style to their writing. Actually, it tends to add a thick layer of BS and to demonstrate quite clearly why supposed synonyms are not necessarily fungible.

Newspaper writers have an especially bad reputation for this. Every fall newspapers are littered with references to “orange gourds” because the authors think there’s something wrong with saying pumpkin more than once. Articles on dining will have the oddest things being “munched”: Pancakes? Spaghetti?

But today I have encountered a really particularly bad case of this lexical disfigurement.  Bob Greene, CNN Correspondent, bestselling author of 25 books, who therefore really ought to know better, has presented a piece called “Why ‘Hail to the Chief’ remains unsung” that in other respects is not terrible (it’s not great; its central point is rather questionable) but in its use of synonyms for sing is in a grave condition indeed.

He’s talking about politicians singing together at the presidential inauguration. It doesn’t start out so badly. He first says they “blend their voices for certain time-honored lyrics.” OK, fine.  He then comes to “Hail to the Chief,” which is normally played by a brass band and not sung, even though it has a rather good set of words (his thesis is that because the words speak of unity in approval of the presidential choice, opposing politicians wouldn’t want to sing it). He manages a reasonable, not inaccurate “it would be unrealistic to assume that members of the party out of power would want to enthusiastically belt them out.” Sure, “belting out” the lyrics to that song – easy to picture. And after that his next synonym is “ardently vocalize,” which at least presents the same picture.

So try to reconcile that with his next synonym: “they possess the potential for some pretty awkward moments of public crooning.”

“Public crooning”?! What?! Crooning is a style of singing. It is a style very unlike what he has just described, very unlike what you would expect at the occasion, and really quite unlike what you would probably expect from any group of assembled people singing patriotic songs.

His next inelegant variation is “Try to picture, during the administration of George W. Bush, the trio of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama raising their voices in song to warble in Bush’s direction…” Warble? Um, OK, if you have to. But really? You don’t have to.

And in the next paragraph it’s “the sight and sound of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and Trent Lott harmonizing…” Leaving aside the question of whether you see them harmonizing, I think it honestly unlikely that you would hear them harmonizing; dollars to doughnuts they would all be singing the same melody line.

OK, OK, you don’t just want to say “sing” over and over and over. Fine. Your central thesis is a little weak and you feel you need to reinforce the point with repeated imagery. And the English language is rich with different ways to say more or less the same thing. But try to stick with the more, not the less, OK? And maybe ask yourself, next time you talk about people “crooning” a loud song (or “murmuring” a military order, which I’ve also seen), whether you aren’t trying to get your thesaurus to do work your thesis should be doing.

Are you deranged?

As people who read Sesquiotica know, I’m not in the business of coming up with inflexible rules for people to slave under. But I am in the business of making observations and occasional suggestions. And sometimes asking questions.

Well, today I have a question for you: Are you deranged?

Actually, that would be better put as Is your prose deranged?

Here’s what I’m getting at. How do you normally express a range in English? You know, from 1 to 20 or from ultraviolet to infrared?

The way I just did, naturally: from…to.

And when people write ad or marketing or expository copy wanting to talk about all the options available in this or that place or from this or that person or business, they very often like to use this form to give a sense of a full range. In fact, two items often don’t suffice to express the ambit of offerings: you’ll get

from Iqaluit to Toronto and from Victoria to St. John’s

or you’ll get

from drama and dance to engineering and physics

and sometimes you’ll even get a string of to‘s.

But what you much too often will not get is an actual range. The from…to construction is grabbed as a convenient way to convey the idea of a a diverse offering, like a sweep of the arms. But too often it lacks clarity, it lacks sharpness, it lacks punch, because it doesn’t express a real range. It’s de-ranged.

Consider a sentence such as

From its beautiful waterfront to its exciting dining options to its lively theatre scene to its lush parks, Toronto has a lot to offer.

Diagram that out if you can. Does that really express a contrast between endpoints or extremes? It’s four different things, but it’s not like

from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, from the Arctic Circle to the great lake waters

It’s more like

from your elbow to a poodle to your nose to pineapples

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (“Sharpening and vowel shifts” and “chiaroscuro“), contrasts appeal. Make a strong statement. Give it some flavour if you can. Go for something like

From Napoleons to beef Wellington, if it has pastry, we make it.

If you don’t have a sharp contrast, don’t pretend you do. But you can probably find one if you look – rather than just being lazy and relying on a usage that seems to suggest contrast. You’ll get more contrast from

Treat yourself to our one-inch micro-whoopie pie. Or to our twenty-inch monster cake. Or maybe just a nice warm muffin.

than you will from

From cookies to cakes to muffins, we have the full complement of baked goods.

This isn’t a rule; this is advice: don’t be de-ranged. Don’t be lazy or sloppy. Don’t rely on clichéd syntax. Stop for a moment and think about the truly vivid images available. You’ll produce much better results if you do.