Sep 252017

“The more that you take care with your writing, the more you might explore uncertainties in your thinking,” suggests Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Professor Julie Kennedy in this excellent Writing Matters video. Kennedy helpfully stresses the primacy of “owning” your topic before putting pen to paper. There’s no short cut.

Sep 212016

One of the best pure writers I have ever seen was a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University named Emily (she gave me permission to use her first name). She could amalgamate and compress numerous, complex source articles into a hyper-lucid page or two, which on top of that was mellifluous when read aloud. Just the memory still gives me goosebumps.

Once Emily complained to me that professors in her major often dinged her for submitting assignments that did not meet the page requirement. “I wish they understood how hard it is to be so brief.”

I thought of Emily the other day when I read scholar and blogger Bryan A. Garner’s post Law Prose Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms, which I quote here in full:

Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.

This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if this means making the writer’s job more difficult.

A certain judicial opinion defines the following terms: EFP, FCM, HC, NYME, REDCO, ROI, and TOI. Before we know it, we read that an FCM represents REDCO before NYME, expecting an improved ROI, but that the FCM also has duties to TOI, under EFP-1, to certify that TOI owned enough HCs to cover its EFP obligations. To most readers, it’s all gibberish.

Instead, use real words. Make it succinct, but use real words. Otherwise, your readers will rebel by putting your prose down and never again returning to it—or if they do return to it, they’ll detest you.

Dear Reader, Try to make the above piece of prose more clear or more concise. I tried; couldn’t. Emily could probably give it a whirl, but I don’t know what she would come up with.

Readers of this blog know how much we esteem author Garner‘s work, the scope of which is wholly humbling:

Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges—cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia—and Better Business Writing, a work focused on the art of communicating in the business world, published by the Harvard Business Review.

His magnum opus is the 942-page Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. It is widely considered the preeminent authority on questions of English usage.

If you are already feeling lazy today, check out these links another time. Just a recommendation.

Dec 252015

It is a truism that dormant websites and social media platforms can do more harm to you than good, no matter how active you have been in the past. I teach my students numerous methods to keep their online presence bubbling even when they are busy with other things – the holiday season, finals – or when they are ill. I have certainly used these methods myself, in both situations, to keep my many platforms up to date.

For websites and blogs:
– Feel free to recycle past posts that have a timeless quality to them – maxims, insights, humour. (I make sure that such posts are at least three or four years old. I also make it clear that these are re-posts.)
– Point your readers to good writing posted by others whom you bookmark or follow via your news-feed (see below). There is nothing wrong with a post that is composed mostly of another writer’s thoughts. Give credit where credit is due, and Bob’s your uncle.
– Create and use an extensive photo library. A photograph with a short description will indicate that you are still “on the case.” And people like pictures.

For Twitter:
– No matter how busy or under the weather you are, you can usually get out of bed and review your news-feeds (see my own Feedly feeds); this can take as little as twenty minutes.
– Then: Tweet the posts and articles that will appeal to those who follow you.
– To make sure that you don’t spam your readers, spread out your tweets. There are numerous tweet-schedulers. I use Hootsuite and Buffer. With these I can be tweeting all day with just a few minutes’ effort in the morning.

For LinkedIn:
– Many, if not all, of your blog posts will be of interest to your LinkedIn “connections.” Post these in your LinkedIn updates. There is nothing wrong in repurposing your work this way.
– Once or twice a week, head over to your LinkedIn account and see what your connections are doing. Comment on or “like” their updates. Show that you are still attending to the work and insights of your online friends and colleagues.

So there you go: easy peasy lemon squeezy. Keep your online presence active and your ‘brand’ beaming. Have a wonderful holiday!

Nov 232015

Lawyer and language genius Bryan Garner over at spells out, in typically lucid fashion, how to compose documents when you know they will be read on a computer screen rather than on paper.

1.Summarize. It’s important to learn the art of summarizing concretely. Avoid airy generalizations and instead make pithy, practical, vivid summaries. These should always appear at the fore. (By the way, a LawProse survey has demonstrated that 87% of headings that say “Executive Summary” are highly misleading: what follows is a true summary only 13% of the time.)
2.Give bearings. The architecture of your writing must be overt: you must use highly informative headings, preferably full sentences that amount to succinct propositions.
3.Cut the clutter. Clutter is more anathema than ever. With on-screen reading, it’s even easier to flick over pages with just a scan. Readers can skim page after page with just a swipe of the finger. So anything extraneous must be eliminated altogether or radically subordinated. Anything that sets the reader to skimming or skipping must go.
And as for editing:
You must always edit any serious document by hand, after printing it out. Sending an important document without that step is a serious mistake.
This is from Garner’s “LawProse Lesson #237.” The preceding 236 lessons are all worth perusing if you write or edit in a professional environment.
Oct 302014

I like Virginia Postrel‘s take on the recent controversy over at A popular author, Bill Frezza, published a controversial column on that website – advising university fraternities to beware of female students who show up at their parties drunk – and was fired. Comments Postrel:

What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn’t spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand.

In the traditional model, Frezza’s article either would have had the backing of the publication–which would have stood up for it–or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, “No thanks. What else do you have?” There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.)’s business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils.

Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly.

Other, very bad problems with this model: (1) Authors are financially punished for writing stories that take a long time to report or that are important-but-boring; (2) livid, invidious opinion is likely to generate more “clicks” than researched journalism; (3) writers must now aim to please rather than to inform their readers.

Back in the day, Sports sections, for example, subsidized important-but-boring stories about school-board meetings and treaty negotiations among Asian nations. No more, alas.

Reposted from basil.CA

Dec 062013

When teaching oral communications to my students, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing those who speak in “uptalk,” that habit of ending sentences with a rising inflection so that declarative sentences sometimes seem to sound like questions. To me that would be like asking people to change their maritime or southern accents: snobby and obnoxious.

At any rate, the folk at Language Log are on the case. It turns out that research has shown “uptalkers” up their talk earlier and higher in sentences when they are asking questions than when they are making statements.

That is, a good listener should be able to de-code uptalkers’ tones successfully.

May 122013

Are there any people other than mothers who ever truly know that they have been the most important person in the life of someone else? I like this question, and ask some variant of it in most of my professional communications classes, on the first day, to explain why workplace documents should be as brief as possible (but no briefer). Unless you are a Mom addressing your young child (or, I suppose, a blessedly happy spouse addressing your partner), chances are excellent that you are not the most important person in the life of your reader. Respect that fact always, and don’t waste anybody’s time. Be generous by being concise.

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Jan 022013

Back when I frequented the critique forums, I often found myself talking about the distinction between what I called “private poems” and “public poems.” Private poems were poems that existed for the author’s benefit – often to work through emotional events like a breakup or the death of someone close. And there’s nothing wrong with a private poem – it offers catharsis to the person who pens it. But the place of a private poem is in a personal journal and not a literary one. Private poems may deal with the same subject matter as public ones, but what differentiates the process of writing a private poem from the process of writing a public one is the subtle, constant presence of the “other.” In composition classes, it’s referred to as audience, and often treated as a mere consideration or component.

But audience is at the core of writing, and all other techniques and conventions flow from that. It’s a shame that so much of writing in our schools and academic institutions is audienceless. And let’s be clear that a teacher or professor is not an audience, because there is no purpose in writing to that particular person about the chosen topic except demonstration: to prove your knowledge about the topic, your ability to perform research, your writing skills, and your mastery of style guides. Writing for a grade is not the same as writing to communicate a point, a process, a feeling, or an experience. I suspect many students are only confronted with the distinction when they reach university. Their misunderstanding becomes evident when they are suddenly asked to blog for their courses; often the writing is obviously a private demonstration of ability for the instructor’s benefit, and not a public conversation with their classmates or a wider audience.

I remember – at least I think I do – when I came to understand that I wasn’t just writing for myself or for my instructors. My high school creative writing teacher gave us letter grades because she had to, but those letter grades were accompanied by an evaluation that the work was either “publishable,” “publishable with revision,” or “unpublishable.” We were not required to submit our work for publication, but we were, for the first time, treated like working writers trying to communicate with real audiences. We learned to read like writers and openly workshopped each others’ fiction and poems, speaking in detail about how the work worked for us, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. This switch in stance, from students trying to impress to writers trying to engage an audience, changed everything.

It’s something I wish for every student, the earlier the better. I believe that, wherever possible, educators ought to ask their students to write public projects, not private ones. Writing work that will be peer reviewed doesn’t necessarily count – the student’s peers must be a natural audience for the work, not a contrived one. But what if you are a student, with little control over the course material? Simple. Choose to switch stances. Treat your instructor not as your arbiter but as your colleague, and decide that you have something important to share with them. Choose a topic you’ll both find interesting; this almost certainly won’t be the same topic ten of your classmates choose to write about just because there’s abundant literature. Writing is the show-and-tell of adulthood. Bring something that matters.

Image used under Creative Commons license from IcyAero’s Flickr feed.

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