Sunday, December 20, 2009

An apple a day keeps the delivery guy in business

As an independent writer and consultant, I thanked a small handful of my best clients and colleagues by sending treats from Harry & David again this year. Most received small packages of delicious treats, including the deliciously addictive Moose Mix popcorn. One received what may have been the world’s most expensive apples.

She’s a cherished friend and colleague with offices in two locations, one in Phoenix and one on the East Coast. Through a clever ruse (I asked), I learned that she’d be in New Jersey last week and paid Harry or David (whichever handles shipping) a little extra to make sure that a box of their best Honeycrisp apples would arrive by Wednesday.

Harry (or David) lived up to his promise and the apples arrived around noon on the specified date. But what Harry, David and I did not know was that my colleague spent most of that day at an offsite meeting, went directly to her hotel afterward and flew back to Phoenix Thursday morning.

I talked to her later that day and was able to discretely ascertain that she had not received the fruit (I asked). We laughed about the mix-up and I quizzed her about her schedule, intending to place another order on Friday.

But before I reached that line on my to-do list, she called and asked me to guess what she was eating. Her New Jersey colleagues sent had the package to her Phoenix office … via a FedEx. She started to say the apples were delicious, but corrected herself to note that they were actually Honeycrisp (rim shot). True. But they also saw more of the country than Johnny Appleseed.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That's just our style ...

Even though I don’t consider myself an editorial stickler in the classic sense, writing my last post reminded me of something that happened long, long ago and in a company that has vanished in a haze of memories and mergers.

I was managing internal communications and editing the monthly newsletter. I was doing much of the writing myself, but received occasional contributions from marketing communications people working in the business units. These contributions often were delivered reluctantly and following my wheedling, cajoling and sobbing (but that’s another story).

Anyway, I recall editing one contribution to comply with the publication’s style. Being a marketing guy and more than a little arrogant (is that redundant?) the contributor chuckled dismissively at my minor changes and assured me that “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

I immediately beat him about the head and shoulders with my AP Stylebook – the old school edition with the wire binding. He survived. But it was even harder to get him to contribute to the publication after that.

I probably should have just pointed out Mr. Emerson was writing about a “foolish consistency” rather than one with logic and purpose. I’m sure that Ralph didn’t mean to provide air cover for writers who don’t care that words, punctuation and capitalization are used consistently in a publication … or even within a single article.

You can’t expect a writer that careless and lazy to care whether titles are capitalized, how commas are used in series, or whether my home state should be abbreviated “AZ” or “Ariz.”

Still, was it necessary to hit him with the style guide? Yes, because there was not a big enough stick handy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I am not the grammarian about whom your parents warned you

In fact, I probably couldn’t diagram a sentence if all the nuns at Holy Rosary simultaneously threatened my knuckles with wooden rulers … again.

I’ve been an editor many times and I have a collection of old business cards and job descriptions to prove it. I’m a good proofreader and above average speller (this would definitely surprise the good sisters) and often edit or rewrite drafts provided by clients and other writers.

As a writer myself, I try hard to improve others’ writing without imposing my own style and preferences. Not always easy. My own teachable moment occurred a decade or so ago when, in frustration, a good writer on my staff asked, “Is the goal of this publication to have everything read like Bill Hiniker wrote it?”

It wasn’t. As an experienced ghostwriter and speechwriter, I pride myself on being able to write in my clients’ voices. Publications – like choirs – have more texture when they employ different kinds of voices. Kumbaya. Amen.

I only recently learned the difference between “preposition” and “proposition” … the hard way. But I know good grammar, punctuation and usage when I see it.

I was raised on the AP Style Guide and William Strunk. I cherish my well-worn copy of “The Careful Writer,” given to me by a boss and mentor on my last day as an Air Force journalist. I actually read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” for fun. I miss Bill Safire.

In many ways I am unapologetically old school. I try to correctly spell words. I think a preposition is still not a great thing to end a sentence with. I check the meanings of words with which I’m not completely familiar. I like it when subjects and verbs are of like mind. Stuff like that.

But early in my journalism training an instructor passed out an article from, of all places, the “Reader’s Digest,” which advocated that people should “write the way they speak,” rather than in the more formal style favored by English teachers of the time (including those dear, and now departed, sisters).

Said another way, it’s better to express than to impress. This is especially true in the social media era, when every word is at a premium.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Still chasing paper, after all these years

A former colleague recently asked me to recommend her for entry into a master’s degree program, which I was happy to do. I asked her to remind me of the exact dates we’d worked together. She provided them, along with a letter of recommendation I’d written for her more than 15 years ago.

I was impressed. She had quickly located a single sheet of paper that was more than 15 years old. I can seldom find my backside with both hands and a GPS. Ask for a document more than a couple of hours old and I’ll begin by searching the files between “slim chance” and “none.”

The experience took me back to a day back in the early 1980s when I was working in employee communications at Sperry Flight Systems. At a company productivity conference I was covering, a marketing guy from Sperry Univac showed off our company’s first entry in the brand new personal computing market, the SperryLink.

The SperryLink wasn’t a personal computer. It was a remote terminal, which hooked into a mainframe, combined with a word processor that was positively primitive. Lacking internal storage capacity, it stored documents on huge 8x8-inch disks that were actually floppy and had to be stored in their own little filing cabinets. Each held about the same number of documents as a manila folder, as I recall.

Still, the SperryLink was a huge leap forward from the Correcting Selectric typewriter I was pounding at the time and I soon became the first non-secretary in the division to have one on my desk. One of the few times in life I was an early technology adopter.

At the presentation, the very enthusiastic marketing guy (is there another kind?) said, with dramatic certainty, that paper’s days were numbered. Thanks to personal computing, he predicted, we would see the paperless office within five years, 10 tops.

In the third decade after the birth of personal computer, there are still a few sheets of paper around my office. More than a few, actually. How about yours?

So I wonder when I hear predictions that other paper things – newspapers, magazines and books, for instance – will follow the pterodactyl off the scene in the foreseeable future.

If those predictions prove as accurate as the Univac guy’s, maybe we all should pick up a few shares of Dunder Mifflin at a bargain price.