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.