communication


Renovating my dilapidated eyesore of a shed into an art studio has me thinking about different kinds of writing projects.

An essay, novel, short story, or poem is like a new construction custom home. You invest all the thought, time, and energy you can to get it right. Many rules exist – grammar, punctuation, spelling, building codes – but even working within these rules, there’s tremendous room for creativity, for creating something stunning or groundbreaking, something with lasting impact. Many non-fiction books are written with this same commitment.

News reports, contributed articles, case studies, and press releases are like new construction tract homes, slapped together under a deadline. They follow the same basic rules but also follow a very limiting set of additional parameters (structural components, jargon, repeated floor plans and facades) to make them easier and less expensive to produce. They can be useful and even important, but they are often of poor quality, making the writing hard to consume and the buildings subject to a variety of problems, such as leaks. Most unfortunately, many writing projects that have no deadline are written as if they do.

Next comes editing someone else’s work or adapting a piece of writing for a completely different purpose. Like renovating an older structure, you really don’t know what you’re going to encounter until you start tearing things apart. If you’ve watched contractors doing this, you realize they often have to improvise. They keep key goals in mind – correct size, level, sufficient support, leak prevention, and building codes if there will be an inspection – and then cut, hammer, tape, strap, cheat, shim and caulk to achieve their ends. “Whatever works” is the guideline, and this is often the case with editing projects. Last week I was asked to do a last-minute proof of a press release I’d drafted weeks earlier and that had gone through numerous revisions. Unfortunately, some introductory information had been taken out, so out of the blue, a product was mentioned with absolutely no description or context. At first I thought the only good solution was another major revision, but since there wasn’t time, I got on the phone with the account director and talked through the problem. As we discussed more and more drastic repairs, I suddenly saw I could quickly introduce the product early on with just an added phrase. It certainly wasn’t the best solution, but it eliminated the most jarring effect and met the time constraints. The caulking gun approach.

I think of the kind of writing more and more of us do every day – the short email or blog post – as the equivalent of decorating projects, like putting up shelves or hanging some pictures. These are typically useful projects, but their real importance is the role they play in the overall effect and usability of the décor. We can choose to do these projects fast and sloppy or slow and neat. Is the picture at the right height? Does it hang straight? Are the shelves level and properly spaced? The better we execute on each project, the better the overall effect. It’s the same in writing. Each blog post may be useful in its own way, but the real importance is in the cumulative effect. Which is why execution on each piece matters.

To stretch the analogy just a bit further, in the same way that expensive furnishings and a paint job can obscure construction flaws in a building, interesting content can sometimes overcome weaknesses in structure and sentencing – while tasteless decorating and uninteresting content can make excellent construction irrelevant.

“So what about Tweets?” I ask, as I click over to Twitter to check the stream. It may not be writing at all. It may be poetry. More on this later.

According to the Associated Press, Merriam-Webster recently decided 100 new words were worthy of inclusion in the latest edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Why so few?

Among the words are pescatarian (a fish-eating vegetarian), infinity pool (an outdoor pool with an edge disappearing into the horizon), dirty bomb, and netroots.

I love these particular words and some of the others cited in the article, but overall the collection seems arbitrary – why these and only these? The explanation included in the article (which I won’t quote since this is an AP story) relies on subjectivity, which is understandable but begs the question of whose experience and resulting subjectivity constitute sufficient authority.

Ah, the pros at Merriam-Webster.

Which brings up the role of dictionaries and to what extent we should be relying on them. If I want to use a common word that hasn’t yet made it into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a word such as, uh, conjobulated, am I wrong? Should English teachers redline such usage if my readers understand it?

Since dictionaries often disagree – will the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford American Dictionary include the same 100 words? – it’s important not to think of any one dictionary as the arbiter of the words you can use. (And of course there are those who think we shouldn’t be adding any new words or new uses of existing words, but I dismiss these folks as eccentric and unimaginative and relegate them to a parenthetical.)

A useful dictionary evolves over time to reflect how we actually use words – though long publishing cycles mean they live most of their lives out of date. And their real value is not in dictating what words we can use, but as a resource for understanding words we encounter but don’t recognize. That is, they can help us understand what we are reading or listening to, and they can help us build a larger working vocabulary.

Writers, however, need to focus on their readers and the words their readers use and understand. Think about it. What’s more important, being right according to some arbitrary standard or communicating effectively? Both you say? Then which dictionary (or grammar book or language watcher) do you believe?

Instead, be an aggressive reader and listener. If you demand that what you encounter makes sense, then you will refine your understanding of how words – old and new – are used, and you can refer to dictionaries as needed. For words not in your dictionary, search them out on the Internet and try sites like Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary and Urban Word of the Day

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that you use any word any way you want. Remember Humpty Dumpty. But feel free to enjoy the full richness of our constantly changing language, as long as you take your readers or listeners into account, so you are communicating clearly and effectively whatever your purpose may be.

I’ve earned my livelihood primarily as a writer and writing instructor since 1979. Much has changed: styles, tools, vehicles, topics of interest, and who’s willing to pay for writing and how much. A lot hasn’t changed. “A lot” is still two words. We still fight over the serial comma. And the goal for most writing projects is still to deliver the most valuable information clearly in the fewest possible words.

The media continue to play the dominate role in the evolution of our language, enriching it by pulling street speech up into mainstream communication while training us to communicate carelessly and unclearly. Social media is having a significant impact both good and bad on our language and how we communicate, and it has also made the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly more important than ever.

These topics will keep me busy.