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Monday, September 8, 2014

Take the Selfie Test When Adding an Attachment

Some folks have a knack for writing an enticing message when sending an attachment.  Others don't.

Often, the problem is an inability to recognize what a reader needs or wants to know when receiving a message with an attachment.  He or she (your reader) does not need to see you attaching the document.  He or she needs to have his/her curiosity whetted about the content of the attachment or expect to gain a benefit personally from reading the attachment.

That cover message for the attachment should not only assure the reader you are not a sender of SPAM but that the attachment has enough VALUE to risk opening it.  That risk might involve the release of a potential virus, but more often it simply means that the reader is risking losing time and his/her train of thought by the disruption of an email that is empty of value.

So, if you are not successful in gaining the respectful attention of your reader, take this SELFIE test when composing your message that introduces your attachment.

The next time you are attaching a document see if you can pass the SELFIE test.  If you can take a SELFIE of the action you describe in your message, you have failed to produce a compelling message for your attachment. That message might read like this:  Attached above is my document that I have placed there for you because you asked me for it.

What should a message in an email contain?  A benefit for the reader--not the image of you clicking "attach."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Facebook Updates Can Teach You about Business Writing

Occasionally I encounter a business person who writes like a long-winded person speaks:  many words that stretch out into a long spate of time.

It feels real long in real time.

When you are reading lots of words that exist in real time, too, you have an advantage over a person who is politely listening.  The polite person keeps listening.  The in-a-hurry reader who needs to be several places at once and whose attention is split in that many directions and will simply stop reading long prose.

For that reason I think that Facebook and Text messaging have been good for business writers.  You will not see better or easier-to-read big ideas telegraphed so swiftly and in some ways more entertainingly.

That's what business writing is supposed to do:  telegraph big ideas fast to people for whom time is money--and fleeting.

More and more, I pay attention to really good writers on Facebook and other social media sites who have a real knack for condensing a story that needs to be told. 

The effectiveness of these headline/updates often works because of the writer's ability to understand who the reader is--and trust that reader.

You don't hear much about that trust of readers in a business writing class, but the dynamic exists.  Central to successfully communicating a lesson is the ability to know that the reader will fill in the gaps you leave by writing with brevity and clarity.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Punctuation as a form of lay-out and document design

A discussion of layout and design of a document could easily lead to a consideration of punctuation marks as tools of page and lay-out design.  
Like arrows and bullets, punctuation marks are simply visual cues that help a reader to know when to pay attention to a grouping of words that fit together to form an idea.  

Decoding what words mean is what reading is, and punctuation marks help a reader to see how words and groups of words unite to represent the intended meaning by the writer of them.
Mathematicians perform the same service for people who translate numerical sentences and equations by relying upon the visual cues of < >  + - = and [ ].  For some reason the symbols used with numbers seem to make an easier sense to us than the symbols  : ; !, . ? and “ “ do with words, but it is really the same concept. 

Punctuation marks proclaim and forecast relationships on the page for the reader.   These little shapes and marks group words for the reader because decoding words is harder to do than the word reading implies.  Deciphering the intended message of long blocks of words can be as difficult for some people as it is for readers who are trying to translate a language that is not native to them.
If reading were as easy as breathing then people would not have to work so hard to become better writers, but writing for clarity’s sake and with respect for the reader’s need to understand the message intended requires commitment, humility, perseverance and the ability to try and understand the process of punctuation until you find a way to connect with how you as the writer see the patterns of your own words on the page or screen and use them efficiently in such a way as to help the largest number of readers understand how you group words and use them in complete thoughts like sentences, which is the function that a period performs.

 It is quite possible that you can come to the conclusion that after a lifetime of believing you would never understand the use of the comma that you rather easily can—you just need to figure out the way your brain sees the words on the page. For punctuation of sentences is not really about the vast numbers of ways that one can write all kinds of sentences and learn and remember all of the rules for and the ever-changing set of exceptions to the rule of comma usage; it is about learning your own patterns and know how to punctuate the sentence patterns and word groupings that you use as your bunch of standard tools.

We all have them.  And we can all learn to punctuate ourselves.  When we figure out that we have a chronic problem with a certain kind of punctuation, then our free will allows us to simply give up and say, “Using a word that ends in  ‘ing’ at the beginning of a sentence leads to a punctuation dilemma I just can’t solve. So,  I will simply stop beginning sentences with words that begin with ‘ing’ until I do understand.”  It is always your choice how you plot out a sentence or a paragraph, and you are always free to keep using a comma before a conjunction even though the world now says, uh-uh, we don’t do that anymore.

Because people have so many ways of seeing patterns and because the language that usually teaches punctuation does not accommodate those differences very well, here is an effort meant to explain punctuation in terms of stances associated with different ways that people make sense out of the design or layout of documents and the symbols they contain.

White Space equals silence.  It is not scary.  You know those old adages about looking at a blank page and having writer’s block.  Let go of that idea.  White space is your friend.  White space is your reader’s friend, too, for the presence of it signals the reader where to rest, take a breath, stand easy.
Consider the indention of paragraphs.  While much writing now is not indented,  when a block of prose lacks that first 5 empty character-sized spaces called an indention and in terms of document design that small area of white space signals that a new idea in a a new paragraph begins here. When the indention is abandoned, you should certainly see two lines of white space that separate the two paragraphs instead.  Both mean the same thing:  new idea starts here.  The use of white space is one of the most powerful tools of lay out and design.  Traditionally, two white spaces occur after a period, which allows the reader’s eyes to recognize that something more final has happened there, but that little mechanical choice is fading away as word processing cleans up "extra white spaces" that are no longer relevant in many ways.  But some are.

White space is a document creator’s and reader’s friend because it helps to communicate and to read.  Indentions, tabs and lines of space between paragraphs are important in easing the reader’s eyes along.  The same is true of the right side of the margin.  Called ragged right margin, when the writer does not turn on the function called justified right margin which results in blocking the prose, the reader will find that the ragged right margin where the lines are uneven is simply easier to read than blocked prose, which is associated with accountants and lawyers.

So, to begin in thinking about how to lay out a document, just consider the use of white space.  When you see the page do not panic or think ‘I have to fill that up.’  You don’t.  You really plant symbols on the page that will become ideas for the reader and lead the reader’s eyes along, which is a major function of document design.

The Period—the most basic punctuation mark at work is the period.  One uses it to show that a complete idea has been expressed, but that is not the only symbol at work to do that.  The capital letter of the first word of the sentence also helps with this design function.   One looks for the complete idea that is expressed between that word that begins the idea and is capitalized and the last word that finishes the thought.  Then, the period is applied and two taps of the space bar add the two white spaces that help the reader to recognize the finality of that expressed completed thought.  Or, not. 

The Comma—This punctuation mark has a job description that is changing.  One no longer uses it before a conjunction—those words that connect two complete ideas although I still do from time to time. I am nostalgic that way.  One no longer uses it before the last item in a series although I still do that from time to time too.  Old habits die hard.   But in terms of adhering to a fast rule for comma usage,  there are two basic ways that a comma needs to be in a sentence and that is after a long clause that sets up the subject of the sentence and before a small clause that could be left out of the sentence and the central meaning of that sentence would hold true.  The name for that first set of words is an introductory clause and the name for the last clause is a non-restrictive clause. 

Do you see how those two names don’t really help you to understand the function of a comma?  

 A shorthand way of seeing each is that when there is a big string of words at the beginning of the sentence add a comma before the noun that functions as the subject of that sentence.  If there is a phrase at the end that you could chop off, add a comma before that. 

Look at the meanings of each set of words and judge for yourself.  Frequently that phrase will begin with the word “which” but not necessarily.  You almost never place a comma before the other word that signals a clause.  That word is that.

So, look at your own sentences.  Is there a string of words before the noun which help to introduce the noun in the sentence?  Add a comma right before the noun or after the string of words—however you see them.

Is there a tag clause at the end that you could chop off?  Place a comma before that phrase begins.
Learning those two hints will help you use a comma more efficiently and with confidence.
There are other considerations for using the comma, but the truth is that they fit inside a variety of sentence patterns, which seems to make the comma a punctuation mark with so many exceptions to the rule of it that one can never learn them.  That feels true.  But the more important truth is that each writer uses a fairly limited set of sentence patterns, and once you learn your own sentence patterns, it becomes pretty simple to use the comma correctly.

There are the 7 basic sentence patterns.  Find out what they are.  There are many ways that many different  English-teaching folks try to explain them, and it all sounds pretty complicated.     Instead, look at your own work and identify which of these patterns you most often use.   You probably rely upon three (or four) of these patterns.   Match your patterns to the ones you learn about, and then nod knowingly because now you know your patterns.  Make sure you know how to punctuate your own sentence patterns and then add a new sentence pattern the same way you add a new dance step to your repertoire.

Quotation Marks—They have two primary functions.  To set off the words someone has said or to set off an excerpt that you are taking from another source.  Other than that, the most overused and ill-considered use of quotation marks is when people use them to set off a word or term  so that a reader will pay special attention to it.  Most of the time people place quotation marks around a word or term because they cannot think of the word they want or need to use and so highlight their word choice this way to flag the reader’s attention.   Quotation marks used that way mean something like this:  I sort of mean this word or something like it.  It is left to the reader to figure out what the writer is trying to say and that is unwise.

It is unwise to expect the reader to try and read your mind.  It is unwise because even the most carefully selected words have denotative values and connotative values.  When a reader sees those quote marks and tries to substitute a word of some kind to mean what they are thinking you are trying to say there is no telling what kind of meaning-rich word he/she will use.

If you cannot think of the word you mean, keep thinking until you know and then use the best word.  Use those quotation marks as sparingly to set off special words as you do the exclamation point, which has only one function:  to proclaim excitement.

That’s it.  How excited can one person be?   When an exclamation point is used many times and sometimes repeated four or five times at the end of a sentence to indicated extreme excitement, you can bet that the exclamation point is being used there in the same way that the quotation marks can be misused:  to indicate a meaning that is not clearly written for the reader and not truly known to the writer either.

Ah, well.  C’est la vie.

The apostrophe used in the above common French phrase is simply the way you spell that phrase, but the apostrophe also basically has two main functions:  it helps to spell contractions correctly (two words mashed together) and stands in for the missing letters of the word that has been compressed, such as “isn’t” and “haven’t” and “would’ve”.

But most often the apostrophe is used wrongly in relationship to the tiny word Its and it’s.  It’s is the contraction for It is but the apostrophe also is used with words to show that what follows belongs with the word that has the apostrophe.  That’s called showing possession.  When something belongs to the word that is not a contraction and is indicating a relationship that apostrophe is used EXCEPT when the word is ITS because that’s the exception.  Just learn it.  Then, use it correctly.

Punctuation, like layout design, can be as big a subject as you want to make it, or you can tailor the discussion to fit the size that you use and navigate daily.  Start thinking of punctuation marks as symbols that graphic designers could use to lead the reader’s eyes along, and you may be able to use them more comfortably and efficiently than you ever have before.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

What is the difference in your analytical assesment of an event or subject and your opinion about it?

Increasingly, with pundits and politicos offering their opinions about world affairs and attempting to decipher the hidden motives of other people also offering their opinions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between someone's opinion and the analytical assessment of a situation that is based on objective reality that can be verified through empirical evidence.

Can we hear it in ourselves even?  Do we know when we are offering a biased opinion and an assessment based on a neutral, objective analysis of verifiable facts?

Listen to yourself.  When you begin to hear yourself using these expressions, take a reality check:

I believe......
I feel.....
I think......
I suspect.....
I hope.....
It is fairly obvious to me....
Most people would agree with me, I'm sure....
I know for a fact....

Who knows anything for a fact? 

Facts are based on empirical evidence.  Most everything else is a subjective conclusion drawn on untrustworthy data.

Letters--All kinds of letters: Katie Goes to College

Dear Katie:
As you prepare to go to college I think about what I need to say to you as you head out the door.  I know you heard me about being leery of bald-headed men who drive convertibles and don’t have enough sense to wear a hat, and I know you heard me when I pointed out that man jogging around the neighborhood in his underwear and the implications of both his self-possession and our response to his comfort level of exposed vulnerability in front of strangers (us). We decided he posed one of those questions that we don’t need to answer.
He is, Katie.  That man jogging in his underwear is emblematic of many oddities in life that do not require you to make sense of them.
Let the memory of him remind you to turn your attention to the questions relevant right now for you on a college campus.
For the most part I have left the questions about romance and religion to your mother, except for those occasions when you have asked me a direct question about my own faith.  I have told you the truth about Jesus. What you need to remember always is that he is real. Although you will be going to college where they teach you questions and offer you often pat answers about the creation of life and its meaning, I can tell you that while the experience of college will be exhilarating in its open-ended exploration of the best ideas that men and women can come up with, there are many paths that lead nowhere in particular.  Some ideas require no more serious cogitation than that man jogging by us in his underwear did.
You’ve heard of wilderness experiences from the Old Testament.  Sometimes the freedom to explore tantalizing questions doesn’t turn out to be discovery at all—sometimes, those experiences are mainly circuitous meanderings-- wilderness experiences where the explorer wanders around looking at various strange trees, believing that by knowing the number of trees, time spent in wandering, and the amount of money spent on text books and tuition that you are going somewhere that will ultimately be validated as meaningful or a destination called progress.  Sometimes, the only real measure of that experience is that you survived it, but you don’t always learn something distinctively true and life or faith enhancing.
A big subject in college that often leads to a wilderness experience is the blanket assertion by scientific thinkers and logic advocates that evolution disproves the supremacy of God as the creator of you and this planet.  Evolution is a wonderful dynamic to explore.  It’s true, by the way.  But it does not disprove that God made everything.  He made the dynamic of evolution.   To me, evolution’s most tantalizing feature is the creative dynamic of natural selection upon which an understanding of evolution is based. You can look at the scientific evidence and agree with what you see, but it does not disprove that God made everything.   You will need a different faculty in yourself to know this, and it won’t be reason alone, although, ideally, reason can take you there eventually, my dear. You will need to trust that part of your curiosity that is fused with imagination and which explores what reason alone cannot—you will need to let your soul keep company with the Holy Spirit of God and allow him to lead you into all truth.  Jesus says that he will, and he will, because Jesus does not and cannot lie.  You will follow the history of dates and changes in human kind and animal life, and depending upon how far you pursue the investigation, you will find interesting data about the intersection of viruses on human life and the small big bangs of jumping genes as they inform our understanding of the human genome.  You will encounter many big words, beautifully constructed paradigms of science, and also philosophy and poetry, but you will never get to the root of an explanation for why we humans are here that is more tantalizing or true than God created us for himself so that he could have someone to love.  And then he waits for us to love him, and he asks us in excruciatingly tender ways to love one another.
Because we are paradoxically attracted to and terrified of being loved intimately and completely, we tend to leave or try to hide from God, so he sent Jesus to first find us and then explain Love to us again.   Jesus didn’t leave us orphans when he finished his work here.  The Holy Spirit uses the intellectual advances of humankind to hint at aspects of God-Is-Love’s nature, but never mistake the ideas of men for the absolute truth about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
 Even the very best preachers only come close occasionally to getting this right.   By this, I mean, the characterization of the nature of eternal love that is possible right now in communion with God which happens only because the Great Lover of Mankind (and Creator of it, too) has made this communion possible.  Your soul intersects with the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, this is referred to as tabernacling.  That gift fits inside what we call grace, and it means that God makes everything that is good that can happen between us possible.
To begin to experience grace, we simply have to believe God and put him first.  Anything that comes before our love for him is what he calls an idol.
            I suspect that because I have always called you Beloved and you have rightly signed your cards to me that way, you believe that I have made you into an idol of sorts.  There have been times when I felt you resisting my love because it was oppressive to you; I know it has been.  Unconditional love can feel like that to others, but it is not intended that way. I have loved you unconditionally, and you have never been an idol to me.  You have always been only a gift from God. But do you see how big that is—you, Katie Ellen, a gift from God?
I greatly admire you, Katie, my Beloved.  Most of the times I only tell you this in ways that you are used to hearing—pretty hair, pretty face.  But I see you much more deeply than that, and I know you are an authentic human being who is only temporarily seventeen and works at a pet store where you do not find the task of cleaning up pet poop beneath you. I admire that—as I enjoy how often you come home wanting to buy one of the dogs that you are responsible for showing to others.  It must be difficult to function something like a person in an adoption agency who must try and find needy animals homes and to make judgments (and how can we help it?) in that moment about whether the prospective parents—your store’s customers-- are good enough to raise the animals you already love.
As you weigh and assess the dangers of your customers becoming the parents of the dogs you love, think of how I must consider trusting you to strangers to raise—people like college teachers who are bound by their own pressures, driven by their own egos, and biased by questions that have haunted them all their lives and for which they are still looking for answers and may try to justify their inclinations and their answers by telling you information that isn’t always true.  They don’t usually know they’re lying.  They don’t usually know they have denied the truth of God because they are afraid of being completely and deeply loved by God.  They can’t believe that.  I know this is true mainly because I am a college teacher and some of my friends are people who are afraid of unconditional love. Sometimes I am, too, still.  I am as capable of being fearful and wrong as anyone, and I regularly monitor myself to make sure that I am not trying to justify my faith at the expense of people who don’t believe as I do and don’t want to.  They have that right.  It’s called free will, and I respect it without reservation.
Ultimately, as you begin your studies in college and soon declare yourself in a field of study, be happy and enjoy that pursuit, but the most open-ended intellectual and spiritual pursuit of yours or anyone’s life is the continued worship of and longing for Jesus and more of Him.  Listen carefully at college, and as you hear invitations to think about all kinds of ways that people organize meaning out of human experience, remember that all of them have an end.  All of them have a conclusion.
You are about to go and see more of the world than I can control, and I don’t want to.     The adventure is thrilling. But there is far more to being alive than learning the pieces of puzzles that fit inside a cerebral paradigm.  There is life itself, and that happens inside the living love of the Resurrected Savior whose ongoing mission is to keep talking to the Father about us, and all the while he is calling to us, whispering, beckoning, waiting.  He is there, is my point.  He lives.  Live with him and the puzzles of cerebral enterprises find a different place in what you value, and when you do, you are more alive, more thrilled, more free than in any other kind of simple thinking.  You are going off to college, and it is quite an adventure; but you will never find a greater adventure than following the Shepherd who will not lead you astray or unto any kind of death that you need ever fear.  Let every day begin with his name on your lips as you ask him to keep you company, and let every day end with gratitude for what he has given you, for he gives you your very life. As he has given me mine.
I cannot give you life or much more than words of encouragement like these as you go off to college.  In this world I have mainly been a college teacher, and I can only speak of what it is like on campus and what I have seen and what I can remember from my own days of venturing out.

I can imagine much. But I know this:  God loves you, Jesus is real, the Bible tells the truth, and if you would work on your penmanship and take care to use it when you are writing those essay exams in your college classes, your grades will shoot up.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

George Washington Carver's Recipe for a Good Life

Mr. Carver’s recipe for a Good Life:
Be clean both inside and out.
Neither look up to the rich nor down on the poor.
Lose, if need be, without squealing.
Win without bragging.
Always be considerate of women, children and older people.
Be too brave to lie.
Be too generous to cheat.
Take your share of the world and let others take theirs 

Included in A COOKBOOK FOR KATIE available on Amazon.