Friday, December 17, 2010

More Words We Love To Hate

According to a recent Marist College poll of over a thousand American adults, "whatever" was chosen as the most annoying word or phrase for the second year in a row. "Like" came in right behind it. Other irksome terms included "you know what I mean," "to tell you the truth," and "actually."

Actually, to tell you the truth, I'm in complete agreement. Word One and Word Two are simply irritating space holders; our current versions of "uh" and "um." "Actually" says nothing. "To tell you the truth" makes me think the speaker or writer normally doesn't tell the truth, but is choosing to do so now.

Oh, now they've done it. They've fired up this grammar geek's engine of irritation. Now I'll have to add my personal language pet peeves that flab up your work and generally make what could be lean, mean writing a fluffy, obtuse mess.

1. In order to

Tell me, why is this flitter of words necessary? Consider this sentence:  "In order to get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first."

Why not: "To get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first." You get double the bang for your grammar buck; lose a couple words and make a clearer sentence. Or simply rewrite the whole sucker: "We had to tranquilize the cat to get her into her carrier." Done.

2. It is what it is

This was cute for a while, but is now way past its expiration date. It's back there with the green goo that used to be ricotta cheese. Its current use as a kind of verbal shrug has ruined what was once a brilliantly simple tenet of Zen philosophy. Thanks a heap.

3. Rain event

Have you noticed this creeping into our weather forecasts? As in, "We're expecting a rain event to slowly move into the Northeast." Why can't it just rain? Or is that not technical-sounding enough to justify all those whiz-bang graphics?

4. At the end of the day

What, "when all is said and done" isn't good enough for you? (Seriously, that sucks, too.) This tired phrase needs to be retired. What if we tailor this throwaway phrase into something more specific, depending on the situation? In politics, one could say, "When we finish digging through the mess the previous administration left behind." Or, in the case of any PR nightmare, "When we figure out who's to blame."

5. On a daily basis

Another useless chunks of words. Comedy writers seem to like this one. As in, "While I appreciate the occasional romp through a dumpster, it's not something I enjoy on a daily basis." The rhythm is kind of nice, but the tune's been played.

6. Often

Did I miss the announcement that we are now supposed to pronounce the "t"? Maybe I was, like, somewhere else at the time. Maybe I was researching the history of the word and its storied pronunciation past. Before the 17th century, according to Random House, the "t" was pronounced. Then it was gradually dropped by well-educated English speakers, American and British, and is now considered the preferred pronunciation. Sometimes contemporary speakers have added the "t" in a misguided attempt to sound erudite, which, at least in my opinion, makes you sound like you're trying too hard. After all, we don't pronounce the "t" in soften, fasten, listen, or glisten. But as more of us say "AWF-tin" and become accustomed to hearing it, it may sneak its way back into favor. Please stop. Friends don't let friends sound stupid.

7. Ad experience

I saw this recently on a commercial break, I was shown three alternative images and asked, "Which ad experience would you prefer?" Unfortunately, there was no option for "None, thank you." But... "Ad experience"? If I'm seeing an ad, aren't I already experiencing it?

8. Completely destroyed

 This is one of my favorite phrases to hate, and one still used by many otherwise literate journalists. "Destroyed" is... destroyed. Done. Finito. No more. The building is a pile of rubble; call in the backhoes. "Completely" is redundant. And there is no "partially destroyed" just as there is no "partially pregnant."

What are your favorite irksome phrases and groan-worthy words? And how do you pronounce "often"?

Friday, December 10, 2010

6 Ways To Make Work More Fun

"It isn't fun," a former colleague once grumped. "That's why they call it work." But as more companies feel the pressure to get competitive or go under, they're looking for creative solutions to their problems. And, according to Paul McGhee, PhD., (I love a professional whose name rhymes with his creds) top management is learning that to get the most creativity (and productivity) from their employees, they need to foster an atmosphere that makes work more fun. If you want to come up with the next creative insight for your business, try these tips:

1. Get creative with your workspace.
I like toys. Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza bobbleheads natter atop my computer table. Various action figures, including Xena: Warrior Princess, Spiderman, and Paul McCartney adorn my various pieces of office furniture. In my desk drawers are juggling toys, a ribbon box, and a Slinky or two. Sure, you can get away with this because you work from home, you might say. But even the most buttoned-up office environments are letting their hair down. Casual Fridays abound, and some companies, like IBM, have abandoned dress codes altogether, as long as you don't show up naked. Before the dot-coms dot-bombed, companies like Pixar treated employees to on-demand snacks and beverages, pool tables in break rooms and in the case of DoubleClick (now a subsidiary of Google), an indoor basketball court in their downtown NYC headquarters. They knew relaxing some rules and making the work environment a less-stuffy, task-masterish place to be for the long days employees tended to be there sparked creative juices and resulted in some great ideas. Too bad the money thing didn't work out. Maybe this happened in offices without pool cues and Red Bull on tap.

2. Build little rewards into your day.
Everyone's to-do list has those tasks you dread because, frankly, they suck. They still have to be done, but what "people person" wants to be stuck in an office, entering sales figures into a database? What incontrovertible introvert loves to plunge into cold calling, or longs to give a presentation to upper management? But if you promise yourself a small treat when you do finish these kinds of tasks, like coffee from the "good" place down the block, the task may feel less sucky.

3. Share a laugh with a colleague. Subjects in a recent study at Northwestern University more easily completed word puzzles after watching some stand-up comedy. As long as you're not making jokes at the expense of others, a good laugh can reduce stress and relax your overtaxed brain, putting you in a state more conducive to "sudden" creative insights. So if your boss doesn't like today's Dilbert strip, tell him or her it's for the good of the company.

4. Look for the pony. According to Peter Robinson, author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, the former president's favorite joke was about an overly optimistic boy whose worried parents took him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist brought him into a room piled with horse manure. But instead of the disgust the psychiatrist had hoped to engender, the boy scrambled atop the pile and began to dig. "With all this manure," he said, "there's bound to be a pony somewhere." I'm not suggesting you become the office Pollyanna or start digging in piles of horse poop. But even if you are in an untenable job situation, and must remain in it for whatever reason, find something to like about it. Preferably, something funny. At one former job, at which I was finding myself less and less of a "fit" as the company culture changed, I'd think, "At least I get free coffee and tampons."

5. Have a cup of tea.
Not the stale old Lipton's that's been in the break room cupboard for the last ten years. Chai tea, in particular, has been shown to boost creativity. Probably because the complex flavor palette (blends of different spices with tea) stimulates areas of your brain responsible for creative thinking. It tastes great plain, or with cream and honey. Enjoy.

6. Bring your sense of humor to work.
Popular work-culture books have recommended leaving your personality at the door. Maybe you don't want to strut around the office with your tattoos on display (depending on what kind of office you work in) or make jokes others might find distasteful. But if you're creative and have a sense of humor, it could be an asset to let that pop out now and again. And it could lead to your company's next great idea.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

(Nearly) Everything I Know About Editing I Learned From Writing Installation Instructions

Many years back, I worked in the marketing department of a lighting manufacturer that asked us to create installation instructions for each of their 200-and-some products. It was challenging to translate from engineer-speak into English and to get all parties on the company-wide team to agree on the simplest of concepts, but we did it.

In the process, which took many drafts, many months, and many cups of coffee, I sharpened my editing skills. Here's what I learned:

1. Be Clear. There is not much worse than being atop a ladder with half a light fixture in one hand, a screwdriver in the other, and installation instructions that read like they've been translated into Norwegian, then into Mandarin Chinese, and then back into English. If it's impossible to install this fixture any other way than to assemble the whole shebang on the ground, and then, with help (because it weighs a hundred pounds), attach it to the ceiling, say so. Or you may never get a second order from this customer, because you've made him squander valuable union contractor time and money taking the #$@$% thing out of the ceiling and reassembling it.

2. Be Concise. Contractors don't have time to parse out flabby language. Say you write, "In order to properly install the battery pack onto the frame, make sure you have selected the correct screwdriver, which should be a #5 flat head screwdriver." Not only is this an eyeful to read, it's insulting. Of course a competent contractor would install something properly. So this sentence becomes, "Attach the battery pack to the frame using a #5 flat head screwdriver." Done.

3. Be Accurate. Check all your facts before the boxes leave the warehouse. When a customer has a hundred fixtures on site is not a good time to discover you've neglected to include (let alone write) programming instructions for the whiz-bang remote that controls the dimming on all of them. Or that you've told them to use the wrong screwdriver to install the wrong widget. Know your widgets, people!

4. Be Compact. Anyone who writes has probably been told showing is better than telling. It's the same for installation instructions. If Steps 4, 5 and 6 require a clear diagram, you'll have less room for text. Carve those unnecessary words from the text, and you can make the visuals even bigger.

5. Know Your Audience. An install sheet for a licensed electrical contractor reads very differently than one designed for a residential customer. Just as you'd never assume the average homeowner knows how to install something "according to local code," don't tell the contractor to screw in the "light bulbs." These, in non-residential land, are called "lamps." Bulbs, they say, grow in the ground, and you lose a lot of credibility points.

6. Know Industry Standards. Construction codes and legal liability dictated that we include certain things on our install sheets, like a UL logo and this line: "Read all instructions before installation." (Even though probably 75% of contractors use installation instructions as nothing more than a placemat for their donuts and coffee.) Similarly, consider your publisher's standards or requirements before you submit. Or else you could end up doing the literary equivalent of disassembling a hundred-pound light fixture on the floor and possibly losing a few widgets down the heating vents.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue In 4 Easy Steps

Ideally, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a representation of how people actually speak. (Extracting the polite greetings and chit-chat and such, unless that chit-chat reveals story or character.) So how better to learn the way people actually speak than to listen to them conversing with one another?

Before I get arrested as an accessory to violation of privacy, I'm not saying that you should put your ear up to walls (unless something particularly juicy is going on) or hang out outside of people's domiciles with a shotgun mic. I'm talking about a little public eavesdropping. Don't think you can pull it off without blushing, staring, urinary incontinence, or otherwise giving yourself away? Try some of my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropping tips:

1. Observe the natives in their natural habitat. Writing a teen novel and don't think your dialogue sounds authentic? Go to the mall. Hang out in the food court near a large group of kids. Don't act like a stalker. Just...hang out. Don't look at them; it makes them clam up and, depending upon how you are dressed, makes them move away. Bring something to read, preferably something stuffy and non-electronic and unrelated to anything teenage kids are interested in. You will essentially become invisible.

2. Become a fly on the wall while writing everything down. I keep a tiny notebook in my purse at all times. (It's an excellent habit to get into, since you don't know when inspiration will strike. However, if this occurs while driving, please pull over to the side of the road first.) But if I'm going somewhere where I know I'll have a long wait, I'll bring my "real" journal. This is especially fruitful while I'm waiting to have my car serviced. I'll get a cup of coffee and make myself comfortable in their waiting area, which is usually crowded. I'll take up my journal and start writing...everything people in the lobby are saying. Why would anybody question me? I'm simply writing in my journal.

3. Learn the art of reading without reading. This is my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropper tool. If I bring a magazine or book on the subway, and actually read it, I won't pick up on the conversation the two women are having behind me about a mutual friend's episiotomy. (Hey, you never know when you might need something like that in a scene.) If I focus on the white space between the lines, then unfocus my eyes, I can hear every word. It's kind of like those $#&@$ puzzles where if you look at them just right, you can see the chrysanthemum in the elephant's ear. Don't ask me; I couldn't see it either.

4. Know that most people are very casual about their public phone behavior. I love banks of pay phones, where they still exist. If you act like you're waiting to make a call (pace about, stare at your watch, jingle change in your pocket, and for heaven's sake, don't check your BlackBerry, as that's a dead giveaway), you can pick up a boatload of great authentic dialogue. Even more fun is guessing at the conversation on the other side of the phone. Use it as a writing exercise. The advent of cell phones has made one-sided eavesdropping even easier. The rule here is not to approach anyone having a cell phone conversation. That scares them off, and it's just plain rude. These opportunities are usually spontaneous. For instance, you're enjoying a double tall cappuccino at your favorite people-watching spot when Beyoncé starts warbling from the cell phone of the twenty-something sitting near you. She starts an animated and very loud discussion with her BFF about her last date with a married celebrity, a certifiable cretin who picked his teeth at the dinner table, said that Hitler was misunderstood, and ordered lasagna for her when he damn well knew that she was lactose intolerant. You are under no obligation to move.

Any good Harriet the Spy tips you've used to improve your writing? What are some of your favorite pieces of authentic dialogue?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Snack Segregation

I don’t normally go to the gourmet market in town, because they refuse to stock decent organic produce no matter how much I complain, the prices in general are stultifying, and twice I got food poisoning from their hummus. But they do have one redeeming quality: a twinkly, magnifico candy and chocolate department. You can buy beautiful homemade chocolates by the piece or by the pound, including peanut butter cups the size of hockey pucks. They sell retro candy like horehound drops, teaberry gum, circus peanuts, and Peeps in every flavor and color. But my favorite? The giant island of bulk bins, containing everything from burnt peanuts, sesame sticks and gummi worms to Reese’s pieces, yogurt-covered raisins and dried apricots. Mix and match, all for the same price per pound. Heaven.

Today the chocolate craving called me there. I got a plastic bag, scooped in a few dark chocolate-covered peppermint balls and miniature peanut butter cups. I looked at it, thinking, “Now, that’s just too much chocolate. If I eat that I’m going to have hot flashes until my skin roasts and probably will go into convulsions while I’m driving. That would be bad, although death by chocolate would not be the worst way to go.”

Then I remembered something I learned from a holistic nutrition class. If you balance flavors like spicy and mild, light and heavy, and sweet and salty, you’re less likely to have cravings and more likely to feel satisfied. That’s probably why many women’s ultimate PMS food is chocolate-covered pretzels.

So I figured I’d add some salted mixed nuts to my chocolates. Weird, maybe, but that’s how I roll. Creativity knows no media; it just wants expression. Who knew peanuts and chocolate went so well together until that first, fictional collision? (“Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!”) Also, I’d get the added bonus of slowing down all that speedy carbo-fuel with protein from the nuts. I mixed, I matched, I played. Then hit the register.

The cashier held up my bag, and instead of displaying subtle amusement at my snack combo, she grimaced as if it were something my dog had left behind.

“You mixed this?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s all the same price, right?”

Her face didn’t change. “It’s the nuts.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Nuts and chocolates, they should be in separate bags.”

I’d combed every inch of that blissful bulk aisle as I’d selected items for my goodie sack and nowhere, not next to the gummi sharks or the burnt peanuts or the chocolate-covered pretzels did I see a single sign indicating the apartheid situation that existed between the nuts and the chocolate.

“But I didn’t…”

“That’s the law,” she said brusquely, setting my bag on her combo scanner/scale. “Nuts get taxed.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s the way food items are broken down.” Foods that are unadulterated, she explained, like the nuts, get taxed, and others, like the chocolates, don’t.

“But the nuts are adulterated,” I said. “They’re roasted in oil, and then…”

“Salted,” she said, nodding.

I backed down and paid my stupid half-assed half-tax. But since I’m the type of person who has to know everything about everything, I looked up the New York State tax code when I got home.

And it’s ridiculous. Really, I should have known. Some years ago, a friend was training as a new hire at a local supermarket, and having some trouble understanding what was tax-exempt and what wasn’t. Exasperated, his supervisor finally said, “If it goes in you, it’s not taxable. If it goes on you, it is.” (My friend practically made his supervisor’s head explode by asking in which category condoms would be placed.)

But I think Albany’s gotten more brain-dead since then. For instance, marshmallows are tax-exempt. Licorice is not. Cookies are exempt. Soft drinks are not. Nuts are exempt. (Hah! The cashier was wrong!) But chocolate (except for baking chocolate) is not. So when I return to this market, I must put my nuts (adulterated or not, as long as they’re not coated with candy or sugar or heated), uncoated pretzels and marshmallows in one bag and my chocolates and candy-coated nuts or pretzels in another. So apartheid rule remains strong in the candy aisle.

You know, if it made sense, I’d be more understanding. If completely unadulterated food, like fruit and unroasted, unsalted nuts was exempt and anything processed was taxable, owing to the extra labor involved, I’d get it. I’d gladly separate my goodies and pay what I owed.

But this is just plain nuts.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Present Tense

"Feh," I said, sitting in my chair as the television faded out, wondering where I could find a flashlight. The remnants of tropical storm Nicole sucker-punched the Northeast and knocked out our electricity. After a bit of fumbling, Husband and I found and lit candles, and did the things you do when you don't know how long the juice will be out (like, calling half the people in the area on our cells to ask if they have power, and, for some reason, trying to flip light switches when entering a room.) Then I settled in to savor my secret love of reading by candlelight. I know I have the ability do this any time I desire, but it's more special knowing that I can't turn the lights on even if I wanted to. No e-mail, no television, no Facebook, no work. Nothing but twin tapers and The Heretic's Daughter, a historical novel about the Salem witch trials that I'd been looking forward to stepping into since I rescued it from Barnes & Noble's remainder table.

Husband, however, did not approach the prospect of going Luddite with the same enthusiasm as I. He turned into a great grumbling ball of worry. "There you go," he said, with a huge groan. "Forget about going to sleep tonight. I'll be up all night making sure the basement doesn't flood."

Before you start thinking I married Moses, a little background-we have a generator, and a house in the woods, where blackouts are common in bad weather. Thanks also to our wet basement (actually a dirt-and-rock-floored crawlspace), we have a sump pump. Without this, the basement floods and the water could damage our appliances: two furnaces (one for upstairs, one for downstairs) and the hot water heater. The set-up is not my choice; this architectural disaster came with the house, and we haven't gotten around to doing anything about it, because it would involve a backhoe and a boatload of cash, the former we haven't been able to borrow and the latter we've never had.

So we deal with what is. Or at least I did. Instead of pulling up a chair next to me, Husband vibrated with worry. Nothing I said could change his attitude, but for some reason I tried.

"You don't even know if the basement's going to flood," I said. "The power could come back on in few minutes. And besides, it's not even raining." True. During the storm-for at least the part of it where we didn't have power-we only experienced high winds and a bit of a sprinkle from time to time.

"We're all gonna die," he said.

No. He didn't actually say this.

But it often seems that way, when we experience any kind of crisis. It's as if, when we slipped the rings on each other's fingers, we divided up the world. I would handle what is, and he would handle what might be.

And when the lights go out, or the car won't start, I'll say to myself, "Okay. Crap happens. If there's nothing I can do at the moment to fix this, what can I do instead?"

He'll say, "We're all gonna die." Or words to that effect.

I never saw the sense in worrying about things I have absolutely no control over. It's a waste of energy, and, as I've been practicing mindfulness in the last few years, it's a waste of the moment. Living in the future or fretting about what the future holds negates anything good that could be happening in the present. When I find myself lost in a flurry of negative outcomes, I remind myself to "be here now." And then I can feel the breeze blowing against my skin or the beauty of the trees turning colors or, like that night, the sacred silence of a world without the banging, hissing, whirring, and clicking of our infrastructures.

So I let him be. He got into bed with his iPod and a crossword puzzle, came downstairs occasionally to fume and fret, while I stayed on the first floor enjoying the candle light and my novel. I even went out onto the back porch to feel the gusts lift my hair and cool my skin. I sat in my favorite outdoor lounge chair, tipped it all the way back, and watched in the dim evening light as the wind chased the clouds across the sky. I imagined living in a simpler time, an earlier time, when lighting tapers at sunset was a normal affair and not an emergency procedure.

When the electricity came back on, along with the lights and appliances with their clicks, buzzes and groans, I was slightly disappointed. But from upstairs, I heard Husband say, "Thank God." Then his computer and his television whirred into life, blinking their electric eyes.

The outage lasted three hours. Three hours that I spent reveling in the moment. Three hours that he will never get back. I believe I made the better bargain.

Friday, October 1, 2010

National Anything-You-Want-It-To-Be Month

As if you couldn’t tell from all that pink spewed across the landscape, it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. From this (and from me) you all know the drill: make that appointment, take those steps to reduce the discomfort, and GET THAT MAMMO!!

While breast cancer is a very important cause, and I’d never make light of it, did you know that October shares its media space with a veritable cornucopia of other causes?

Other diseases and health concerns are clamoring for your attention. Lupus, Psoriasis, Eczema, Dyslexia, and Downs’ Syndrome want your notice and probably a little research money from you as well. (I wonder what the ribbon for National Eczema Month looks like, and if you wear it, will you itch?) Backing these up are National Talk about Prescriptions Month, National Ergonomics Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, National Physical Therapy Month (I, for one, am thankful for its existence) and to keep it all straight, October is also National Medical Librarians Month and National Statistics Month (wonder if they keep statistics on which causes are assigned to which months).

And with a grudging nod from the AMA, October is National Chiropractic Month.

But did you know that October is National Dental Hygiene Month? Probably to get kids ready for the dental disaster of Halloween. And we are very concerned about children in October. It’s also Children’s Health Month, Window Covering Safety Month (so that children won’t strangle themselves in curtain pulls), Booster Seat Safety Month, National Safety Helmet Month, National Eat Better/Eat Together Month and Family Sexuality Awareness Month.

It’s a month for other important and overlooked life-or-death safety issues as well. October is National Crime Prevention Month, National Fire Prevention Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, believe it or not, National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Have you updated your virus protection and changed the batteries in your smoke alarm yet?

Be kind to animals - it’s National Pet Wellness Month and Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Prepare for winter because it’s National Fall Car Care Month.

But October isn’t all about scary diseases and serious causes. Summer’s over, school has begun, winter’s just around the corner and we need some fun, damn it. That’s probably why October is National Pizza Month and National Popcorn Poppin’ Month, as well as National Seafood, Pasta, Apple, Mushroom and (finally) Dessert Month. Work off those calories celebrating National Rollerskating Month. If you enjoy a quieter hobby, there’s National Book Month (every month is National Book Month in my house), National Stamp Collecting Month, National Art and Humanities Month, National Art and Framing Month and if you want to research your family tree, it’s National Family History Month. If you feel truly sinful about all that pizza and dessert, it’s also National Clergy Appreciation Month and National Christian Higher Education Month.

I don’t know who lobbied Washington to get this (probably someone who didn’t have much else to do…or recognized the need for a whole lot of TP in Washington), but it’s also National Toilet Paper Month. Like most of us weren’t aware of it already.

If you’re not exhausted already but still haven’t decided on a cause to put your effort behind this month, it’s National Make A Difference Day, so pretty much anything you want to offer would be appreciated.

And if there’s something you truly want to get off your chest (and out of your closet), October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…