Friday, August 31, 2012

It takes a journalist (naturally) to pull off an ingenious marriage proposal

Two weeks ago, David Pogue, the brilliant technology columnist of The New York Times, proposed to Nicki, the woman he loved.

Pogue wanted his children be part of this life-changing event, he writes on his blog, so one night last spring, "I asked them for their suggestions for a fantastic proposal. My two teenagers informed me that the most epic and unforgettable proposal would be a fake movie trailer. It would start out like any other romantic-comedy preview, but gradually reveal itself to be a thinly veiled version of our love story."

Pogue continues:

After its “premiere,” people kept asking if I’d be posting it online so they could show their friends. With Nicki’s encouragement, I did — and to my astonishment, the video went viral. It also generated a lot of questions.

Among the questions:
  • Nice job. But not all of us have thousands of dollars to spend on making full-blown movies for our girlfriends.
  • What about the opening shot? You clearly had a crane rig for that.
  • In the YouTube version, we can see your girlfriend’s reaction as she watches, picture-in-picture style. How could she not know she was being filmed?
Want to know the answers to these intriguing questions? Go here: "How to Propose the Pogue Way".

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Everything you always wanted to know about how to use punctuation marks (but didn't know whom to ask)

There appears to be some confusion regarding the use of hyphens. For starters, many people are unsure about how a hyphen (-) is different from a dash (—). Next comes the question of when to employ a hyphen and when to choose a dash. (For more on dashes, read Ben Yagoda's enlightening column in The New York Times here.)


Many people are also stumped by what is known as suspensive hyphenation, in which two (or more) prefixes may be linked to one word, as in this example from a recent issue of DNA:

Nilanjana Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.

Here's another example of suspensive hyphenation from a Times of India report on the release in Bengaluru of Rajinikanth's film, Lingaa:
Bengaluru, where more than 10 theatres are screening the Rajinikanth-, Sonakshi Sinha- and Anushka Shetty-starrer, has had a long-time following for Rajini dating back to the 1980s, and his fans left no stone unturned in making sure their Thalaiva's (leader's) movie opened to a record gathering in most areas where their network is strong.

Earlier this month, V.R. Narayanaswami, who writes the fortnightly "Plain Speaking" column in Mint, dedicated his piece to the use of hyphens and gave us many examples from the European Union's English style guide. The hypen may have its detractors, Narayanaswami writes, but, and I agree with him, hyphens are not only useful but also essential if we want to make our meaning clear.

When we write "small business owner", are we referring to a small person who owns a business, when we mean a person who owns a small business? In which case, we must write "small-business owner". It is only the hyphen that removes all ambiguity in this case.

So, however much some young people would like to wish the hyphen away, it is here to stay.

In Narayanaswami's column, there is a reference also to "suspensive hyphenation":
An interesting use of the hyphen, not described in grammar books, is coordinate construction. If there is a phrase such as “heat-resistant and acid-resistant” in the sentence, the first-occurring “resistance” is dropped. So we get “heat- and acid-resistant”. Similarly, we have “water- and air-borne diseases”. These are also called suspended compounds. The structure is fairly common now in business writing and technical writing. 

Read the column in its entirety here: "Euro guide to the use of hyphens". 
  • Meanwhile, I am grateful to Commitscion Supriya Srivastav (Class of 2011), for posting on my Facebook wall a link to this hilarious yet very instructive "Word Crimes" video on YouTube:

So, did you learn something from watching that video? I sure hope so. :-)

UPDATE (November 1, 2012): Mark Nichol, editor of the Daily Writing Tips blog, answers reader queries about the hyphen here.

UPDATE (November 7, 2012): Mark Nichol responds to reader queries about another troublesome punctuation mark, the comma: "Answers to Questions About Commas". Also read: "Three Common Comma Errors" and "The Rationale for the Serial Comma".

UPDATE (February 12, 2013): Read all about the usage of apostrophes in this Mint column by V.R. Narayanaswami: "Aspects of the Apostrophe".

UPDATE (March 14, 2013): In one post, everything you need to know about punctuating a sentence. Check it out here.

You still don't have a blog?

Mark Nichol, writing on the Daily Writing Tips blog, gives you seven reasons to begin publishing your own blog right away.

I particularly endorse Reason No. 7:

Your blog provides you with a forum for developing your communication skills — not just writing but also video and audio, as well as interactivity such as networking, commenting on other websites and blogs, and responding to comments on your blog.

Read the column in its entirety here: "7 reasons to publish a blog".

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Chris Cleave proves his mettle with "Gold", his third consecutive bestseller

She tried to smile back. The smile came out like a newborn foal its legs buckled immediately.

When you come across these lines on Page 2 of the novel you're reading, you know you have a terrific book in your hands.

Here is another passage that had me marvelling at the author's powers of description:

He heard their footsteps in the hall and he looked towards the bathroom door, preparing the wry grin he was going to use when they entered. Then, on the far side of the bathroom, he saw his partial denture standing in three inches of Listerine in its glass on the side of the basin; the six front upper teeth, moulded in acrylic and stained progressively over the years to match his real teeth. His stomach lurched. He pushed his tongue to the front of his palate and found the concavity there, with its twin surgical pegs that docked with the denture. He didn't know what he had been hoping for that his teeth might be in two places at once, simultaneously there in the glass and here in his mouth. Somewhere in his mind his front teeth were scattered white seeds on the boards of a velodrome track. But Christ, he didn't want that memory.

Seeing his falsies in the glass gave him a desperate strength, and he hauled up again on the sides of the bath. This time he was able to heave himself over the rim. He collapsed on the floor like wet meat and dragged himself to the basin, racing the girls' footfalls as they came up the hallway. The gap in his teeth was a nakedness worse than nudity. He went faster, dragging his useless legs across the lines in the linoleum, and he felt every tenth of every second cutting into him.

He heard the bathroom door opening just as his hand reached up and found his denture. He grabbed it, brought it to his mouth and fumbled it with his freezing hands. It bounced off the rim of the sink and spun through the air. It sank, with the discreet splash of a near-perfect dive, into the toilet bowl.

This is the kind of brilliant writing that makes a book a page-turner. As soon as I am done with Gold, which should be soon, I plan to look for Chris Cleave's previous two novels, The Other Hand and Incendiary, both of which were bestsellers.
  • Visit Chris Cleave's website here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bad grammar, poor punctuation: a sure recipe for disaster at your workplace

Yes, I am a Grammar Nazi.

That is why, in 2010, I posted 50 rants on Facebook, at the rate of one rant a day.

That is why, last month, I published a post based on a Harvard Business Review article on why good grammar is important for everyone, not just journalists.

And that is why I am now suggesting that every young person should read a feature on grammar gaffes that appeared in Mint recently.

It may be cool to use the latest lingo, the article asserts, but bad grammar and poor punctuation at the workplace could puncture your chances of getting a great job or a coveted promotion.

Here's the business head (south) of Titan Industries, Suparna Mitra, making a relevant point:

The quality of language today has become pathetic. Youngsters, even from premier business institutes, just don’t have a feel for the language.

Mitra says she finds even so-called communication experts like PR agencies sending out press releases riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors.

Sangeeta Singh of KPMG is just as scathing:

Today, the English language is being attacked on many fronts. Gen Y has converted English into a whole new language — LOL (Laugh out Loud), WUD (What U doing ), CU (See you) — ably aided by new social media and technology!

And banker-turned-corporate trainer Tarini Vaidya explains how grammatical errors have the potential for economic and other serious consequences

It was so stressful when I was a CXO with approval authority. Often an email would say, ‘Once we will credited the amount in our bank, update you for the same?’ It took me several minutes to completely understand what I had been told. Another sample: ‘Please approval for prematuring deposit. Customer want urgently demand draft for payment.’ I’d pray I wasn’t giving approvals to somebody wanting to sell the bank or do something illegal.

Vaidya adds that poorly constructed sentences, jumbled tenses, and missed keywords could have serious consequences, quite apart from the poor impression they create of the writers of these muddled missives.

Vaidya also has a meaningful message for young people out there:

Do not take pride in your incorrect English.

Read the article in its entirety here: "Grammar gaffes".
  • Meanwhile, I am grateful to Commitscion Supriya Srivastav (Class of 2011), for posting on my Facebook wall a link to this hilarious yet very instructive "Word Crimes" video on YouTube: 

So, did you learn something from watching that video? I sure hope so. :-)

  • Mint also features a regular column on English usage by a former professor of English, V.R. Narayanaswami: "Plain Speaking".
  • "We cannot help associating 'bad' grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement." True? Read on: Good Applicants With Bad Grammar. Join the debate.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reading this book will change your approach to life

Like me, you must have asked yourself these questions many times over the years:
  • How can I be sure that I will find satisfaction in my career?
  • How can I be sure that my personal relationships will become enduring sources of happiness?
  • How can I avoid compromising my integrity?
Unbelievable as it sounds, there is a book that not only provides the answers to these questions but also explains, with the help of real-life examples, how you can find fulfillment.

Slim in size (206 pages) but big on ideas, How Will You Measure Your Life? does not offer, in the words of the authors, simplistic answers: "It will not tell you what to think. It will not prescribe a set path for happiness." Instead, the authors say, it will equip you to lead the type of life to which you truly aspire.

Here's an apt excerpt from the opening chapter:

People often think that the best way to predict the future is by collecting as much data as possible before making a decision. But this is like driving a car looking only at the rear-view mirror — because data is only available about the past.

Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don't have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.

What an insightful illustration that is of how the theories this book propounds can help us in our lives!

Now here's an excerpt from the first section, "Finding Happiness in Your Career":

The starting point for our journey is a discussion of priorities. These are, in effect, your core decision-making criteria: what's most important to you in your career? The problem is that what we think matters most in our jobs often does not align with what will really make us happy. Even worse, we don't notice that gap until it's too late. To help you avoid this mistake, I want to discuss the best research we have on what truly motivates people.

In the next chapter comes an intriguing examination of what it is that really makes us tick, followed by a fascinating debate on "incentive" versus "motivation". By the time we come to the end of the chapter, we understand clearly why motivation trumps incentive every time and why motivated people truly love their work more than anyone else.


Section 2 deals with "Finding Happiness in Your Relationships". Here's a relevant excerpt from the introductory chapter:

[There] is much more to life than your career. The person you are at work and the amount of time you spend there will impact the person you are outside of work with your family and close friends. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work — and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn't return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families — starving one of the most important parts of our life of the resources it needs to flourish.

The third and final section, which is also the shortest, is devoted to the topic of "living a life of integrity". Titled "Staying Out of Jail" (how appropriate!), this section offers a theory called "full versus marginal thinking". This theory, the authors say, will help you answer your final question: how can I be sure I live a life of integrity?

And, finally, here's a quote from the book that, I hope, will motivate you to pick it up ASAP:

It is frightfully easy for us to lose our sense of the difference between what brings money and what causes happiness.

If you read only one book this year, or over the next ten years, let it be this one. Especially if you are young and have embarked, or are about to embark, on a career and a relationship. (How Will You Measure Your Life? is available on Indiaplaza for Rs.259.)
  • UPDATE (April 3, 2013): How Will You Measure Your Life? has been given top billing in the latest issue of Forbes Life. Charles Assisi, managing editor of Forbes India, writes in an article titled "Happy Reading" that the first book "I think is mandatory reading is How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen". The other books on Assisi's list are Howard's Gift, by Eric Sinoway; The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt; The Thinking Life, by P.M. Forni; and Mastery, by Robert Greene.

"This was just the book I needed"

By Commitscion Archita Nadgouda (Class of 2011)

I ordered How Will You Measure Your Life? from Indiaplaza as soon as I read your post on Facebook. This was just the book I needed at this point of time when I’m embarking on a new relationship and planning a new career. There is no shortage of people willing to dispense advice but, often, you're not completely convinced with the advice you get from them.

This book teaches you "how to think" and apply your own mind, based on the situation you are in, to find solutions because "one size fits all" doesn't work when it comes to advice.

I cannot thank you enough for recommending this book to us!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Draft — an amazing New York Times blog about writing

The New York Times, one of the world's greatest newspapers, publishes a brilliant blog, "Draft", which "features essays ... on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age."

The topics alone made my mouth water. And I learnt much from reading each post. So will you:

Where Do Sentences Come From?

The Point of Exclamation

The Power and Glory of Sportswriting

Zombie Nouns

What Is Real Is Imagined

A Matter of Fashion

Semicolons: A Love Story 

There is more, much more, to salivate over. Check out "Draft" now.

How valid is this critique of our television journalists?

[Our] TV channels and media houses do not invest in training young people in ethical journalism. They do not provide them the resources and the time to do proper homework. Too many young people taking to this profession think that as long as they can talk glibly and emote powerfully, they have done their job well. They are not trained to handle responses they did not expect. That is why very few anchors allow diversity of views to come through. Even judges — whose job it is to judge and pass verdicts — are not as judgmental as are some of our news reporters and TV anchors. They really get angry and start bullying and hectoring if someone takes a position they are not prepared for or expresses an opinion which has been declared politically incorrect. Some of our journalists have taken on the activist mantle even more seriously than full-time activists.

I am not against journalists being involved in issues and taking sides. But when they wear the journalistic hat, they have to learn to allow a free and fair discussion and let diverse shades of opinion to come through so that viewers and readers can make an informed choice.

But most importantly, our media houses do not provide space, time and resources for real research, investigations and informed debates. Most of the exposés of corruption and mismanagement are leaks by rival politicians and bureaucrats. The problem is even more serious with TV channels than print journalism. That is why most of TV news programmes simply cull out sensational news items from the morning papers, get a little bit of visual footage of the same and spend hours on end getting the same limited set of people to comment and emote on those news items — be it a child who has fallen into a borewell or a group of lumpens attacking young women in a pub or a case of police atrocity.

— Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, in an interview with Tehelka. Kishwar, who is often invited by TV news channels to take part in panel discussions, recently wrote an angry two-part open letter to Times Now editor in chief Arnab Goswami. In this interview she tells Tehelka's Karuna John why she made her anger public.
  • Thank you, Natasha Rego, for the alert.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Get to the point!

 ·  · 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

You've written a book? Want to self-publish it? Here's how to do it

Rasana Atreya wanted complete control over "the final product; everything, from pricing to cover design to marketing", so she turned down an offer from a reputed publisher, who did not want to part with the e-book rights, and chose to self-publish her novel.

How did she do it? Here's an excerpt from the article she wrote in the Hindu's "Literary Review" section last Sunday:

I commissioned the book cover and had my manuscript edited professionally, paying a one-time fee for both, instead of a cut in the royalties. This is the sensible approach because both were one-time services (traditional publishers take cuts in royalties because of additional costs like distribution, warehousing etc). If you cannot afford an editor, at least join an online critique group. I’ve been on one for seven years now, and it’s been invaluable.

[When] everything was in place, I formatted the manuscript as an e-book, settled on a selling price, took a deep breath and uploaded it to Twelve hours later, my book was published.

Was her decision a good one? Did she make any money? Find out here: "My self-publishing journey".

What were you smoking, Fareed Zakaria?

The Washington Post story that went viral today. Read it here.

Also read:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Want to learn how to write a sentence? (Who doesn’t?)

An entire book dedicated to learning how to write a sentence? A book that is so absorbing you lose yourself in it? A meaningful book about an important subject that does not read like a text book? I would never have thought it possible. But How to Write A Sentence: And How to Read One is just such a book.

Literary critic and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish, the author of this incomparable work, writes in the opening chapter that he belongs to the tribe of sentence watchers: "Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences."

And what fine sentences we get in Fish's book. Here's one from a legendary movie, The Magnificent Seven:

If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep. (Bandit leader Eli Wallach explaining why he isn't bothered much by the hardships suffered by the peasant-farmers whose food and supplies he plunders.)

To enable us to appreciate this sentence, Fish provides an artful analysis:

The sentence is snapped off, almost like the flick of a whip; it has the form of proverbial wisdom... and the air of finality and certainty it aspires to is clinched by the parallelism of clauses that also feature the patterned repetition of consonants and vowels: "didn't want" and "would not have", "sheared" and "sheep". We know that "sheep" is coming because of "sheared" and when it arrives it seems inevitable and, and at least from one perspective, just. Not bad for a bandit.

And not bad for a certain Mr Fish either! Now that we know why that sentence works, we can get down to crafting a few like that, can't we?

Many short sentences from many popular books are analysed in How to Write A Sentence. But there are some long ones, too, including this famous 310-word sentence from Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963):

...when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 

And here's Fish explaining exactly why King's sentence is such a majestic work of art:

King is replying to the question (sometimes asked by his colleagues in the movement) “Why don’t you wait a while and hold back on the sit-ins and marches?” The answer is at once withheld and given. It is formally withheld by the succession of “when” clauses (the technical name is anaphora) that offer themselves as preliminary to the direct assertion but are the direct assertion; each “when” clause is presented as a piece of the answer, but is in itself fully sufficient as an answer. “Here is the reason we can’t wait,” each says, but if that isn’t enough, here is another and another.

As the huge dependent clause (a clause that does not stand alone as a complete sentence) grows and grows, the independent clause
— the sentence’s supposedly main assertion — becomes less and less necessary.

Meanwhile, there is an incredible amount of cross-referencing and rhetorical counterpointing going on among the clauses as they advance inexorably toward the waiting, and foreknown, conclusion.

A full explication of these inter-clause effects would require an essay. It would include an analysis of the rhyming pattern of “will”, “whim”, and “kill”, which links and bookends the pairs “mothers and fathers”, sisters and brothers”, and “brothers and sisters”.

It would include an analysis of the interplay between inner and outer that begins with the phrase “ominous clouds of inferiority”, continues with “her little mental sky”, and reaches a climax with King’s acknowledgment of “inner fears” that at once reflect and war with “outer resentments”.

It would include an analysis of the progression from “nigger” to “boy” to “John” in counterpoint with the withheld honorific “Mrs.” and ending with the word “Negro”, which does not quite reclaim the dignity history has taken from it.

But it is enough to note the main effect: the building of intolerable pressure as the succession of “when” clauses details the layered humiliation every black man, woman, and child suffers, and then the spectacularly understated, even quite, anticlimactic conclusion “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”.

It is a tremendous rhetorical achievement, a sentence for the ages, but again you can learn how to imitate it, if not to match it. Pick any topic, even a trivial one, say, getting up in the morning in the face of all the reasons not to: “When you’ve stayed up all night watching Rocky for the twentieth time, when the temperature is below freezing, and you’re warm underneath the blanket, when the day promises only drudgery and humiliation, when the conclusion that your life has been for naught and no one will miss you seems self-evident, when everyone you have ever cared for is either dead or angry with you, when the only pleasure you can anticipate is a cup of coffee you can barely afford, when the thought of one more day doing something you absolutely hate is unbearable, then you remind yourself of what Scarlett O’Hara said: ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ ”

If writing is what you do at work or if writing is what you love, you will want to get hold of a copy of How to Write A Sentence now. And I mean now.
  • Want to know how Stanley Fish's book stacks up against that enduring guide to writing, The Elements of Style? Check out this Financial Times feature: "The art of good writing".
There is much to learn from Stanley Fishs approach

An appreciation of How to Write A Sentence: And How to Read One by Dr. Pradeep Banerjee, who teaches economics and management at Commits:

Open a book and there they are. Arranged in sequence, they are neatly positioned and waiting to be read. These are sentences. They come with a power of their own, they weave a magic that the reader willingly submits to and they transport the reader to a world that in turn he relates to with gusto, with a feel, and with an animated attachment to. The reader relates to sentences in a manner that is less seen when relating to other inanimate things and aspects. Think about them, and you are reminded of the gossamer softness of an early spring morning that was seen and felt many years ago. Think of them, and the wildness of a Russian monk comes and hits you with a force of things that have gone amok. Think about them and the speed of the horses carrying the rider across the great and endless steppes comes along vividly. They are capable of creating the loneliness, the angst, the sharp twang of separation, the beauty of a still night, the desperation that a gambler feels when he knows that he is trading with the devil, and a host of all these. Sentences have a quality of their own.

And then there is the writer who writes these sentences. He is a step away, missing from the text that he writes. The text in most cases is not about him. He has created the wherewithal, the magic, the severity, the depths, the anxious moments, the longing and he has not drawn attention to himself. The sentences have a life of their own, and away from the writer. Such is the approach the writer of sentences brings along. Can, then, one learn to write sentences of the type that is under reference; sentences that come with a potential of going way beyond standing up and being counted? Yes, indeed that can be is the message. Try it, and see how well you shape up. There is a way forward, and Professor Stanley Fish offers you a book to do just that. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is that book.

The professor is candid about his approach; he appreciates ‘fine sentences’. He writes on why this is so, and he also writes as to what the reader can do to write fine sentences in turn. His writing shows that he is a connoisseur, and there is much to learn from his writing. And Ramesh in his write-up shows that he is himself an aficionado of the same art.

Plagiarism: Check out the facts

Imagine! Jonah Lehrer, the author of the New York Times bestseller, Imagine: How Creativity Works, has been exposed as a plagiarist. And print and e-book copies of the book are now being pulled from distribution, according to Mark Nichol, editor of the Daily Writing Tips blog. "Like most individuals," Nichol writes, "who have been part of an early twenty-first-century wave of high-profile literary fabricators and plagiarists, his promising career as a writer is over."

Nichol, while explaining that he would prefer to leave the psychology of motivation for such invention to others to analyse, offers some interesting observations on media "criticisms that book publishers do not double-check facts".

He writes:
One of the fundamentals of journalism is veracity in reporting, and most periodical publications consider assiduous research and fact-checking integral to professional reporting and writing. Some professionally produced publications — including mostly magazines but some newspapers as well — employ staff or freelancers responsible for conducting research and contacting sources to verify quotations and quantifiable information, even though it is the reporter's or writer's responsibility to submit accurate content.

But lapses occur constantly: I’ve edited for several newspapers and magazines that, like many other periodicals, often have a space to acknowledge and correct significant factual errors. I’ve also read newspaper or magazine articles about incidents or events with which I was intimately familiar, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a given that even the most well-written article will get something wrong.

Nichol then offers practical advice on the use of quotations:
It’s one thing to slightly alter a quotation for grammatical effect or because the original statement was elliptical and requires more context, or to rebuild one from incomplete notes. It’s one thing to restate another person’s opinions or conclusions (which might themselves not be original). These are acceptable, standard practices.

It’s another thing to slide down the slippery slope of thinking that it’s too much trouble to contact sources to coax them into saying what you want them to say — just reconstruct a conversation from random comments and punctuate it with a bon mot in your source’s voice that she would have said if she had thought of it. It’s another thing to agonise that your article or essay or book is lacking, and to rationalise that the only way to remedy the shortcoming is to invent or copy

And he then adds the perfect conclusion:
Whether it comes to contemplating bank robbery or writing, opt for earning your money the hard way — honestly.

Read the article in its entirety here: "The Facts Are Good Enough".

Also read:
And for those who are not clear about what plagiarism is exactly, here's a primer: "What is plagiarism?"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How to write a gripping article on office lunch thieves (yes, you read that right)

If you have read "25 commandments for journalists" and "How writers can overcome reader resistance", you are sure to appreciate a Bloomberg BusinessWeek feature on, of all things, office workers who steal your lunch.

I hear you ask, "Is that even a story idea?"

Yes, big-time. Ask anyone who has been the victim of lunch theft at work. Ask youngsters who live in a hostel that provides a common kitchen and refrigerator. Ask Tapasya Mitra Mazumder who told me earlier today that she stopped leaving food in her hostel refrigerator after she found a creepy bite mark in her wad of butter.

"But," you continue, "what can you write after you have put down a couple of points? How do you make this story interesting enough for readers?"

Well, there's a lot you can learn on that front from Claire Suddath, who wrote this piece on office lunch thieves in the July 30-August 5 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

She begins with a colourful anecdote to engage her readers:

My friend Peter’s boss always eats lunch in the office — it’s just not always his lunch. If his boss finds a sandwich lying around, he scarfs it down without a second thought. People warned Peter about this when he took the job, at an aerospace tooling company near Seattle. Once his boss snatched an apple right off his desk; Peter has now taken to hiding his snacks in drawers.

Having engaged her readers, Suddath proceeds to "entertain" them. The opening line of the second paragraph makes it clear that Peter's boss is not the only aberrant around:

Everything is up for grabs in office kitchens: soda, coffee creamer, potato chips, it doesn’t matter.

Then we get an example from Suddath's own experience, which is followed by advice from a business etiquette expert. You will marvel at the wit in this particular paragraph.

After some more interesting nuggets of information presented in a smoothly flowing manner, Suddath tells readers how the problem can be tackled, with the help of Kerry Miller, the creator of a blog (you have to read Miller's advice, and also visit the blog concerned).

By the time you have come to the final sentence of the feature, you realise you have not only been engaged and entertained but also enlightened. What more can you ask of a writer?
  • Illustration courtesy: Bloomberg Businessweek/Erik T. Johnson 
    FROM PASSIVEAGGRESSIVENOTES.COM: “People steal other people’s food and drink so often in my office that security put up a notice,” says our submitter in Florida. “Apparently, the sign isn’t working.” Instead, the notes left by the victims have turned into an ongoing office-wide joke.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How writers can overcome reader resistance

Following on from yesterday's Reading Room post on Tim Radford's 25 commandments for journalists, here is some terrific advice from an experienced editor and author, Arthur Plotnik, who has contributed a guest post to the very useful Daily Writing Tips blog.

I was hooked by Plotnik's electrifying opening line:

All we writers crave is to charge into the resistant, overloaded brain of a reader and shoot forked lightning through every last dendrite.

Who can resist such a creative intro? Who can hold off the urge to read the next line and the next paragraph and all the paragraphs that follow? Not me. And, I hope, not you either. Especially if you want to be engaged, entertained, and enlightened. And definitely if you want to be a good writer.

Here are the points Plotnik is emphasising:

1. Specificity.

2. Supercharged verbs.

3. High performance modifiers.

4. Fresh intensifiers.

5. Sound words.

6. Surprise images.

7. Nowness.

8. Street beat.

9. Big nature.

10. Tough talk / Irreverence.

11. Understatement.

12. Torque through intensity.

And here is his post in its entirety with all these points explained in detail, with examples: "Twelve Non-Negotiable Elements of Force in Writing". Have a ball!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader."

Thus begins possibly the most important list of 25 commandments for journalists. Tim Radford, a former Guardian journalist whose brilliant work this is, says he began compiling these commandments after he was invited to train some editors "because I had just asked myself what was the most important thing to remember about writing a story, and the answer came back loud and clear: 'To make somebody read it.' "

For media students who aspire to a career in journalism, obeying each commandment on this list will, I guarantee, make you a better journalist.
Journalism is important. It must never, however, be full of its own self-importance. Nothing sends a reader scurrying to the crossword, or the racing column, faster than pomposity. Therefore simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all storytelling. So is a sense of irreverence.

If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence.

There is always an ideal first sentence an intro, a way in for any article. It really helps to think of this one before you start writing, because you will discover that the subsequent sentences write themselves, very quickly. This is not evidence that you are glib, facile, shallow or slick. Or even gifted. It merely means you hit the right first sentence.

Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don't flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don't whatever you do go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.

Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds in the space of half a page.

Read the post in its entirety here: "A manifesto for the simple scribe my 25 commandments for journalists".
  • Thank you, Maitreya Jagalur, for the alert.

Who is a "cousin sister"?

 ·  ·