Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Low Information Diet

"Sociopolitical events, debates, and controversies are now lucrative forms of entertainment, as the media employs unpaid and fiercely motivated actors."
--Nicholas Taleb

Guess who the "fiercely motivated actors" are? Uh-huh: You and me. Arguing on Facebook and Twitter, in the comments on political and news websites, and clicking on yet more inane articles on the Huffington Post and Gawker.

If this isn't yet another reason to adopt a low-information diet, I don't know what is.

Less internet, more writing.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Two Simple Writing Devices Anyone Can Use

In May 1980, Texas Instruments' new personal computer arrived in the stores, chiefly J.C. Penney's, where there was no one who knew how to sell it, and the few computer shops of the day, where no one wanted to sell it.
--George Gilder, The Spirit of Enterprise

No, this isn't exactly the greatest sentence ever written. Yet it's notable thanks to two simple devices:

Parallelism: The parallel phrases where there was no one who knew how to sell it/where no one wanted to sell it give cadence to the sentence, making it more memorable and interesting.

Reversal: Readers get a surprise when they stumble on the reversal phrase where no one wanted to sell it. You'd think computer shops would want to sell computers, but not in this sentence. Clearly, this new personal computer from Texas Instruments is headed for some drama... and readers will want to keep reading about it.

Parallelism and reversals aren't sophisticated writing devices. Anyone, including you, can use them to produce more forceful and memorable writing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reader Update

A brief update for readers. In order to dedicate time to some of my other projects, I'll be updating Quick Writing Tips somewhat less frequently for the next several months. I'll continue to share new material here, just not at my traditional twice-weekly posting schedule.

If you have thoughts, input or anything else you'd like to share, you can always reach me here.

As always, I am deeply grateful for your time, attention and support.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Don't Let Your Clauses Mingle and Conspire

If a well-understood business is offered to you at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value two to three years from now, with minimal downside risk, take it.
--from The Dhandho Investor by Mohnish Pabrai

Readers, what's wrong with this sentence? Let's break down the clauses one by one:

If a well-understood business is offered to you...
at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value...
two to three years from now...

Hmmm. Would you buy a business that won't be offered for another two to three years? I wouldn't.

Sure, we can tell what the author means: He's talking about buying a business now at a discount to what its intrinsic value will be--two to three years from now. But the reader is left stumbling over a multiple-clause sentence that's too complex for its own good.

Be careful cramming too many clauses together in single a sentence. A couple of clauses can get along well enough, but combine more than three or four and your clauses start mingling, planning things... Before you know it, they'll start a full-on conspiracy to confuse your readers.

The solution? Eliminate. Strip out clauses until your meaning is unmistakably clear. I'd start by eliminating the clause two to three years from now:

If a well-understood business is offered to you at half or less than its underlying intrinsic value, with minimal downside risk, take it.

There. Nothing unclear about that.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Worry Porn

You're using a Teflon pan? Aren't you worried about that?

Vaccines will give my child autism.

Are you concerned about Bisphenol-A in the linings of your canned food?

Have you heard about the risks of dihydrogen monoxide?

We all have friends who share concerns like these, via chain emails, articles on Facebook or idle conversation. And of course the news media immerses us in this stuff around the clock.

This is just another form of pornography. Yes, I said it: pornography. It isn't meant to inform you, it's meant to stimulate your limbic system. It's meant to provoke fear and worry (hence the term "worry porn") so you'll click, read or buy.

And it works so well that we can be fooled into fearing water.

Fear is a hindbrain reaction, nothing more. The information only has to be vaguely persuasive--easy to do since more readers lack basic critical thinking skills--and our forebrains follow along, quickly convincing us that the fear is real and worth worrying about.

Here's the problem for writers: When you worry you're not writing. Worry destroys creativity. It damages your work and your future.

Understand what worry porn really is. It's information constructed to keep us reading, watching, buying and lifestyle copying, but it never provides useful information. Don't consume it.

Visit Casual Kitchen for a longer discussion of this subject.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don't Waste Time Agonizing Over Phrasing

Writing offers us an infinity of agonizing decisions. At my food blog Casual Kitchen, I've spent more time wording and rewording a single sentence than I've spent on the entire post containing that sentence.

Is this a good use of my time? Nope.

Okay, sure, it depends on the importance of the sentence. Your title and your lead sentence deserve extra editing time, clearly. But some sentence four paragraphs into your post deserves no more than a few minutes of decision time. Write it, let it go and move on.

The time you spend agonizing over the phrasing of a sentence is time you aren't spending writing something else. Agonizing never happens in a vacuum. It displaces other important work you could be doing.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Just One Instance of Writing Like This Can Make a Reader Put Down Your Book, Forever.

In its very suggestiveness, cheese is both like and unlike many of the other foods humans cook or ferment. Whether by fire or water or the action of microbes, one of the ways humans transform the edible stuff of nature is in the direction of greater allusiveness--in taste or smell or appearance. Just as we take pleasure in enriching our language with layers of metaphor and allusion, we apparently like to trope what we eat and drink, too, extracting from it not only more nourishment but more meaning as well--more psychic nourishment, if you will. It just so happens that the more vivid, odiferous tropes that cheesemakers have teased out of milk can verge on the indecent, taking us places polite society doesn't like to go.

--from Michael Pollan's Cooked

I'm sorry to pick on Michael Pollan for two posts in a row, but his new book offers too many useful lessons on how not to write. This unfortunate paragraph offers several examples:

1) Hyphens
Using hyphens in two consecutive sentences is a sign of muddled and unclear writing.

2) Complex sentences
Layered clauses and prepositional phrases confuse and bore readers.

3) Repetitive sentence structure
Believe it or not, the first three sentences of the writing sample above share identical structure. Each begins with a poorly-written prepositional phrase:

a) In its very suggestiveness,
b) Whether by fire or water or the action of microbes, and
c) Just as we take pleasure in enriching our language with layers of metaphor and allusion,

Vary your sentences. Don't lull your readers to sleep.

4) Inexplicable comma use
When used logically, commas help readers. When used illogically, they disrupt the entire act of reading. The second sentence (Just as we take ... if you will) is an excellent example how to use commas where you shouldn't and how to not use them where you should.

5) Show-off language
Replace allusiveness and trope with less pretentious language.

6) Needless words
Cut out phrases like if you will and It just so happens that.

7) Pointless drivel/Purple prose
When grinding through passages like this, most readers have just one question: What is the author trying to say? If your readers ask this, you have failed to communicate with them.

Just one instance of writing like this can make a reader put down your book, forever. Don't do it.