Squandering our treasures

Bucket2In the English language, the meaning of words often changes with time.  It seems that it has always been thus.

When I was growing up utilise generally meant to make use of something which might otherwise have been lost or discarded.  For example, a builder might utilise bricks salvaged from an old building as part of a new building.

Today, utilise is often used simply as a posh word for use.  ‘I think we should utilise the green paint in the bedroom, Samantha.’

There has been a similar shift in the meaning of anticipate.  Once it meant to expect something to happen and to take steps to mitigate the effect of that something happening.  ‘General Smith anticipated an attack on the left flank and dispatched a squadron of light cavalry to repel it.’

Today, anticipate is more likely to be used to mean simply expect or await.  And so the announcement of every second concert, film, or TV show is the announcement of a ‘much anticipated’ event.  ‘Madonna’s much-anticipated world tour.’

I know several older wordsmiths who are greatly exercised by these developments.  And I’m sure that, for many, it’s tempting to see these people as just a bunch of pedantic old fuddy-duddies.

But here’s a question: if utilise now means use, what word do we have to express the idea that utilise used to express?  How about reculate?  No?  Well … it was just a suggestion.

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‘Leave abstraction to the painters’

Abstarct23My first grown up writing job was with an advertising and communications consultancy.  My boss was a former accountant with a degree in economics.  But his real passion was for words.

‘Tell a story,’ he used to say.  ‘And tell it in the plainest language that you can.  Make it interesting, but be direct, be concise, and keep it simple.

‘And don’t let anyone tell you that simple means childish.  Child-like, perhaps – but child-like has much to commend it.  When did you last hear a seven-year-old use words that you didn’t understand?’

Not everyone subscribed to Don’s philosophy.  One of the old hands used to grumble that he hadn’t spent 30 years hunched over a typewriter in order to write ‘for morons with a reading age of seven’.  And, to prove it, he often peppered his prose with words like grandiloquent.  But David, the former sub-editor turned copy supervisor, was on to him.  Grandiloquent rarely – if ever – made it into print.

Don’s other advice was to steer clear of anything abstract.  ‘Leave abstraction to the painters,’ he used to say.  ‘Jackson Pollock can do abstract.  You stick to concrete.’

I thought of Don recently while I was listening to ‘an expert’ explaining how to solve a social problem has, thus far, proved resistant to all of the usual approaches.

‘We should treat the whole minefield as a new landscape,’ he said.  ‘We need to interrogate the intention.  We also need to interrogate the data in order to glean the learnings.  And of course we need to build new pathways.  But most importantly, we need to kick-start the national conversation.’

Yeah right.

Is it any wonder that nobody seems to know what to do next?

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Radio rules. OK.

BoseI love radio.  I grew up listening to light static interspersed with music, comedy, news, and drama.

Is there a radio gene?  I suspect that there might be.  My father was a big fan of radio (‘wireless’, as he called it).  And my only other sibling spent most of her working life presenting, producing, and directing radio in four different countries.

Among my earliest memories are programmes like Take It From Here, The Navy Lark, Brothers In Law, Hancock’s Half Hour, and, of course, The Goon Show.

But I also enjoyed American shows like Nightbeat.  ‘Hi there.  This is Randy Stone.  I cover the night beat for the daily.  Stories start in many different ways ….’

And I was an enormous fan of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America.  I loved the way in which his ‘letters’ took you on a journey and then, perhaps when you least expected it, they returned you to the point from which you had set out.

Quiet early in my writing career I heard radio described as ‘theatre for the mind’.  And that seemed about right to me.  That’s what it is.  You hear sounds; and your mind ‘sees’ pictures.

After I had been writing for radio for a year or five, I attended a workshop led by a couple of radio ‘gurus’.  Over the course of the day, they stressed three things.

Tell a story.  Whether you are reporting news, presenting drama, or pitching a commercial message, what people are listening for is a story.  They are listening for something that tells them something.  They are listening for something that ‘makes sense’.  If there is no story, they will probably tune out.

Use language that people can easily understand.  If the listener has to stop and mentally – or literally – look up a word or phrase, they will miss part of your message.  And maybe they will abandon it altogether.  Use plain language.  Wherever possible, eschew jargon and other esoteric language.

Don’t over-write.  Let your listeners use their imagination and ‘fill in the gaps’ in their own way.  Leave space for them to think, to digest, to ‘file’ what you have told them.

Over the past few years, most of us have learned to deal with potential information overload.  We have learned to pick a path, however imperfect, through the multiple messages we are presented with each day, each hour, each minute, even each nanosecond.  And yet the old radio ‘rules’ still have a lot to recommend them.  Just a thought.

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We’re all technicians now

Piano2Find something that you love doing and you’ll never have to work another day in your life.  At least that’s what we are often told.

My maternal grandfather combined his aptitude for things mechanical with his love of music to become a piano repairer.  That was back in the days when every second middle-class – or aspiring to be middle-class – household had a piano.  The piano was the family’s centre of in-home entertainment.

But pianos tend to require quite a lot of maintenance.  And so my grandfather travelled from house to house, tuning, regulating, voicing, repairing, and, sometimes, basically rebuilding the household’s treasured (but often neglected) instrument.

If my grandfather was plying his trade today, he’d be a piano technician.  And he wouldn’t repair pianos, he would service them.

Something similar has happened to the mechanics who used to repair motor cars.  They too have become technicians.  And rather than carrying out repairs in a garage, they provide service in a service centre.

Back in the days when many university students managed to get a summer job that would almost make them enough money to see them through the rest of the year, I spent a couple of summer breaks working at a meat processing plant.  I started out as a general hand, progressed to being a packer, and then becoming a strapper.  The following summer I started out as a lab assistant and moved on to become a production analyst.  (Knowing something about chemistry helped.)

As you might expect of a meat processing plant, a lot of the employees were butchers.  But, from the slaughtermen at one end of the chain to the graders at the other, there were at least seven or eight different kinds of butchers.  And that was before you dropped down a floor to where perhaps the most skilful of all the butchers – the boners – worked.

Elsewhere in the plant,  you could find pattern makers, founders, fitters, turners, riggers, fellmongers, tanners, cutlers, and fettlers ( the chaps who kept the plant’s private section of the railway in tip top order), as well as men and women from many other trades.

Not far from the meat processing plant there was small building that housed a luthier, a maker and repairer of stringed instruments.  About 25 years after I last clocked off at the meat plant I went past the luthier’s building.  It was still there.  Except its sign now proclaimed that it was the workshop of a guitar technician.

I guess that makes me a word technician.  But I can’t help wondering what sort of technicians the fettlers have become.

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Farewell, Mr Zinsser

ZinsserIn Chapter One of William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, he tells the story of sitting on a panel of two, answering the questions of a group of students and teachers eager to hear about the glamourous world of writing.

His fellow panellist was a surgeon who had started writing – with some success – in his spare time.  For each of the questions, Dr Brock, the surgeon-cum-writer, had a sunny answer.  Writing was easy.  Writing was fun.  The words just flowed.  There was seldom any need for revision.  And if, for some reason, the words didn’t flow, then just go for a walk, go fishing, whatever.  Tomorrow would be another day.

In answer to the same questions, Mr Zinsser said that writing was not easy.  And it was not fun.  It was hard work.  He also said that rewriting was the essence of writing; that writing was a craft not an art; and ‘the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.’

The point of the anecdote was to illustrate that there is no single ‘right’ way to write.  Over time, each good writer discovers what works for him or her.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author.  It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Can such principles be taught?  Maybe not.  But most of them can be learned.

I discovered On Writing Well in about 1982.  Since then, I must have read it – from cover to cover – at least twenty times.  It’s always a rewarding experience.

William Zinsser died last week at the age of 92.

Farewell, Mr Zinsser.

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The value of a well-written sentence

BrainGoing through some old papers, I recently came across a note from a writer friend who died at a relatively young age.

She had trained as a journalist and then tried her hand (unsuccessfully) at novel writing.  While waiting for a publisher to recognise her genius as a novelist, she became an advertising copywriter before, eventually, establishing herself as a reasonably successful dramatist, writing mainly for radio and TV.  But perhaps her most interesting writing was the writing that she did to – in her own words – ‘try to work out what I think.’

The note I found was written on the back of part of one of her ‘think’ pieces.  And what was striking about the think fragment was the fact that, despite being written solely for her own benefit (and in fat black pencil on a sheet of A4 lined paper), it was very carefully crafted.  Many ‘initial choice’ words had been changed.  And many sentences had been revised three or four times in what appeared to be an effort to get it ‘just right’ – not just in meaning, but also in style.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with a conversation I had recently with a young media studies graduate.  ‘The thing is,’ the grad said, ‘nobody really needs to know how to write a ‘proper’ [she did the bunny ears thing] sentence anymore.  Text and Twitter, that’s how people communicate.  And in five years’ time it will be something else, something that we haven’t even thought of yet.’

‘But you wouldn’t want to read a whole book of text speak,’ I said.

‘I don’t need to read a book,’ she replied.  ‘There are so many better ways to get in touch and stay in touch.  Spend some time on YouTube,’ she advised.

Our writer friend died a couple of years before YouTube and Twitter were invented.  But, had she survived a little longer, I wonder if either would have helped her to work out – with the clarity of a few well-written sentences – what she thought.

As another friend suggested recently: ‘In order to write well, you must be able to think well.  And in order to think well, you must learn to write well.’

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‘What is written without effort …’

WritingWhen I first began writing for a living, I was surprised by how much effort it took to write a few hundred words of clear, easy-to-read prose.

There was the gathering of the raw materials: the ideas, the facts, and the opinions.  There was the writing and the rewriting.  And there was the reviewing and the polishing.  (Lots of polishing.)

I put the amount of effort required down to the fact that I wasn’t a proper writer.  Writing was just something that I did, something that paid the rent and the grocer and the wine merchant, while I kept an eye out for an opportunity to do something else.  But, as the years went by, the opportunities to do something else, something proper, became fewer and fewer.  At 22, you can decide to go to law school; at 32, it’s a little more problematic.  By no means out of the question.  Just a little more problematic.

Of course, I realised that, sooner or later, someone was going to notice that I wasn’t a proper writer.  And then it would all be over.  Then I really would have to find something else to do.

In an effort to postpone the day when I was ‘tumbled’, I began to widen my playing field.  I started writing for radio.  If I was tumbled in radio, maybe I could still write for magazines.  Or TV.  Or for the corporate world.  But the radio guys failed to spot that I was an imposter.  I remained un-tumbled.  And the cheques continued to tumble in.

And then, in my mid-thirties, I had a chance lunch with a celebrated poet.  ‘I’ve read some of your work,’ he said.  ‘You’re a craftsman.  I hope that you are being properly rewarded.’  (Was being a craftsman the same as being a proper writer?  I probably should have asked him.)

A few years later, and again purely by chance, I had lunch with the head of the English department at a ‘proper’ university.  ‘Do you write every day?’ he said.

‘Pretty much.’

‘And how many words – finished words, publishable words – do you usually produce in a day?’

‘Not many,’ I admitted.  ‘Five hundred.  Seven hundred on a good day.  A thousand on a really good day.’

He frowned slightly.  But said nothing.

‘Well, you know,’ I said, ‘you write the words, you think about what you have written, you rewrite, you rearrange, you polish.  It all takes time.’

‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘That’s a respectable day’s work.’

And later that very same day, now feeling slightly better about using so much effort to produce so few words, I came across a quote by Samuel Johnson: ‘What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.’

These 483 words have taken me the best part of three hours to think about, write, rewrite, and polish.  I really hope that you find them a pleasure to read.

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To end a sentence with?

PrepositionOne of my vivid memories of life in the First Form was a pin board that displayed ‘Work we are proud of.’

As I recall, it was covered with rather indifferent prose written by people who, nevertheless, had neat (and prescribed) handwriting.  My own handwriting was somewhat unconventional – it still is – and so my own attempts at English Composition failed at the first hurdle – at least in the eyes of ‘the Duchess of Room One’.

After three or four weeks of failing to make the cut, I raised my hand at the beginning of the class.

‘Yes, Jack?’ The Duchess said.

‘Are you entirely happy with that heading?’ I asked.

The Duchess frowned and, for what seemed like a very long time, peered at the questioned caption.  Eventually she nodded and said: ‘Yes, I see what you mean.’  And while she wrote a new caption – in her own immaculate and prescribed handwriting – she asked: ‘And what is wrong with the current caption?’

‘A sentence is something we should never end a sentence with,’ I said.  (I was a smart arse even in those far off days.)

‘Correct.’

Of course, it was not correct then.  And it is not correct now.  If you want to end a sentence with a preposition, go ahead.  Be my guest.  Ninety-something percent of your readers won’t even notice.  But some will.  And therein lies the problem.

As with most grammar ‘rules’, the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition comes about because Dryden and several of his successors persuaded their publishers to publish lists of their personal preferences.  That said, even today there are some readers who are distracted by prepositions at the end of sentences.  It causes them to stumble.  It causes them to think about the construction rather than the message.

If you know that some in your audience are likely to be pedantic fuddy-duddies, perhaps you should rearrange your sentence.  Otherwise, a preposition is a perfectly good word to end a sentence with.  (Sorry, Your Grace.)

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‘The most readable argument’

BookCoverMore than half of the documents we are commissioned to edit and enhance are directed at board directors and senior business executives: CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, CMOs.  These are people who make the decisions that ultimately enable their organisations to succeed or fail.  They are also people who have 101 other documents clamouring for their attention.

Many years ago, my then-boss briefed me to write a doco aimed at convincing the head of a brewery to consolidate twelve of the brewery’s most successful outlets under the same brand name.

‘Apart from what’s in the notes, what else do I need to know?’ I asked.

‘That the guy who is going to make the call is going to get another ten, maybe 20 props on the day ours arrives.  And he is going to have time to read perhaps two or three of them.  Having the best argument is important; but having the most readable argument is even more important.’

I was reminded of this conversation the other day when I received a ‘pack’ from the guys who insure our motor vehicles.  The first three pages covered … I know not what.  I started reading but then fell asleep.  It was not until page four that we go down to what was covered and what they intended to charge.  All of that could so easily have been on page one.  As it is, I still haven’t got around to reading the last couple of pages – which will, presumably, tell us what we need to do next.

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Make it easy for the reader

olivetti portableWay, way back, I had the opportunity to work with a writer who was seriously under-rated.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t known.  He was a high-profile man-about-town: the star of many a party; the host of many a fine lunch.  He just wasn’t recognised for his writing.  And yet he wrote some of the most sublimely readable prose.

To be honest, when I first started working with him, I was a bit in awe of him.  If he said: ‘Are you sure this is the most elegant way of expressing this idea?’ I immediately assumed that it wasn’t.  And generally rewrote it.

But, as I got to know him better, I took his ‘challenges’ as invitations to a discussion.  One day (I seem to recall that it was after a couple of glasses of wine), I asked him if he had a guiding principle when it came to writing.

I remember him looking up at the ceiling; and then down at the table; and then back up at the ceiling; and, finally, his sparkling blue eyes engaged my neither-sparkling-nor-blue eyes.

‘Personally,’ he said, ‘I always try and make it as easy as possible for the reader to read.  If the reader doesn’t read it, what’s the point of writing it?’

It was a relatively short conversation, but it changed the whole way I went about my work.  Cheers, Mars.

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