Friday, January 28, 2011

2011 Resolution: Lose some word weight on a daily basis

"I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I’ve written a long one instead." Often credited to a Sam – Johnson or Clemons – this quote speaks to the fact that careful writers struggle to keep their writing lean and crisp. It’s worth the effort.

There’s no substitute for the declarative sentence that is simple, clear and concise, trimmed of words that don’t add value. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Here’s what Strunk and White’s venerable “Elements of Style” has to say:

"Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

S&W’s essential guide goes on to list some examples of bloated phrases that can be easily replaced by lean ones. But they miss my least favorite, which I hear on a daily basis, and which grates on my ear every time.

“On a daily basis. On a weekly basis. On an hourly basis. On a whatever basis.” When daily or every day, weekly, hourly or whatever-ly” work much better.

Save a few words – and my eardrums – by banishing this waste of words from your vocabulary in 2011.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Can we talk... about arrogance & insecurity?

It was hard not to execute an eye-roll worthy of an exasperated preteen as a senior executive from a client company prepared to describe his corporation’s “personality.”

I immediately flashed back to the look on a former, brilliant, and brilliantly cynical boss’ face when a branding consultant from corporate headquarters asked, “If this company were an animal, what animal would it be?” I don’t recall his answer. I do recall that the consultant was quickly nicknamed Barbara Walters.

But just then the client did something quite unexpected. He made sense.

“This company is both arrogant and insecure,” he said. “We’re absolutely convinced that we can hit a home run every time. But we’re deathly afraid to step up to the plate.”

I knew the company very well; well enough to know that he was spot on.

I thought of this conversation last night as I watched the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Despite all her success as a standup comedian, actress and writer – not to mention her trailblazing place in comedy and talk show history – it’s clear that Rivers gets no respect (with apologies to Rodney Dangerfield). Certainly no respect from herself.

Today, in fact, Rivers believes she is a living, breathing punch line for other comics, by virtue of her advancing age and love of plastic surgery. She’s right.

Just as in her act, Rivers holds little back in this documentary. What comes across is a person who is both (pause) both extremely arrogant and extremely insecure. She’s jealous of the success of others less talented than she perceives herself to be, fearful of those she views as cleverer and quick to put down perceived rivals and critics with the basest of insults. Her biggest boogieman is the empty calendar page, which she sees as proof positive that she us unwanted, underappreciated and unloved. She plays crappy clubs and tiny rooms in remote casinos, and hates herself for it.

I confess that I’m not the world’s biggest Joan Rivers fan. I saw her in Vegas sometime in the Eighties during one of her many hot periods, but found her too mean-spirited for my taste. Her opening act was an unknown named Garry Shandling, who I found to be much, much funnier. Rivers’ abrasiveness prevents me from empathizing too much with Rivers and her inner struggle.

Anyway, today I’m thinking about myself (surprise!) and specifically about whether there are times that my own arrogance or insecurity get in the way of my success.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Year's Usage Resolution (Part 1)

All of us who shove words together for a living have our least favorite words, phrases or devices – things we try to avoid in our own writing and annoy us in the writing of others.

Crap. I used the editorial we. I hate the editorial we! At best its use is dishonest, implying that the writer speaks for many others when he is usually sitting alone at his keyboard in his pajamas.

That is, of course, unless he meets one of the criterion listed by Roscoe Conkling, a post-Civil War U.S. Senator, who said that “There are three classes of people who use ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors and men with tapeworms.”

To the best of my knowledge, I am none of the above and therefore resolve to remain “we-free” in 2011.