Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Moving Beyond the Written Word

I've been working to learn Audacity, an audiofile editor, so here is my first podcast! Because I was recently reminded of the beauty of Ray Bradbury's prose, and because it's seasonal, I'm reading from "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
For the wind-rattling sound effect, I modified a file from freesound.org, "0203wind.wav" courtesy of sagetyrtle.

UPDATE: I re-recorded the dialogue and spliced it in with my previous reading; hopefully the salesman's voice is out of uncanny valley territory now. I also tried to fix the cut-off credit at the end by leaving some extra time at the end of the file, but although it sounded fine on the mp3 on my computer, Yodio cut off the end again when I uploaded the audiofile. If anyone wants to suggest some other free audio hosts besides Yodio, please do so!

Monday, October 15, 2012

'Blogger'

A new acquaintance was cut short today (the budding relationship, not the person), when I mentioned having started this blog recently. He said, with his voice rising in disgust, "You have a blog? You're a blogger?"
"Uh, yeah," I replied, nonplussed.

I'm still a bit bemused by this contemptuous reaction. As far as I'm concerned, a blogger is simply someone who keeps a web log, posting about whatever topics interest him or her. There are a lot of different types of blogs about a wide variety of subjects; some are fascinating or fun, some are dull or foolish, and some are just horrible. Apparently, to this guy, they're all bad.

His earlier cell-phone bragging meant he wasn't simply a technophobe. So it must have been the activity of blogging, not the medium, that offended him.

I know that a fair number of monolithic mainstream media organizations still look upon bloggers as a mob of pajama-clad ranters. But this guy wasn't a journalist, so I don't think he was irritated about encroachment on his turf.

However, the first definition of "blogger" on Urban Dictionary starts out this way: "Term used to describe anyone with enough time or narcissism to document every tedious bit of minutia filling their uneventful lives." And that's one of the polite definitions. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who have encountered enough trivial navel-gazing on the web that they just despise all bloggers.

Such generalizations don't make much sense to me, and I'm certainly not going to let that attitude discourage my own blogging. But it does serve as a reminder that even when people may agree on a technical definition for a word, they can differ strongly, even emotionally, about its connotations.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gatekeeping language

No, I don't know anything about obscure jargon used by tollbooth personnel, or anything like that. (Sorry, Georgette Heyer fans.) I'm talking about those who see themselves as guardians of proper English. Gatekeepers include English teachers and professors, editors of various sorts, and many amateurs who offer corrections for love of the language.

As an editor some years back, I felt guilty for using "tidal wave" in a headline instead of "tsunami" -- I wasn't sure about the reading level of my audience, but shouldn't I have given them the benefit of the doubt? I felt a little better after finding out that the Japanese word's roots simply mean "harbor wave," which isn't any more accurate in describing the phenomenon. Scientists prefer tsunami, but most people understand that "tidal wave" refers not to neaps or ebbs or other types of gravity-based water movements, but to the walls of water caused by earthquakes.

English is a constantly evolving language, with users borrowing from others, creating new words, and using old ones in new ways. (The whole plot of the wonderful 1941 comedy "Ball of Fire" gets started by Gary Cooper's realization that he's falling behind in his attempt to list and define slang expressions for an encyclopedia.)

Language lovers face constant conflicts between purism and popular usage, and like actual battles, experts love to keep rehashing old ones. A recent NPR commentary reviews a new book, "The Story of Ain't," about the cultural upheaval caused in 1961 by Merriam's publication of the third edition of Webster's  International Dictionary.

I wasn't born yet when that controversy arose, but I know something about it because of my reading habits. Rex Stout's 1962 murder mystery, "Gambit," features a scene where detective Nero Wolfe is ripping out pages from that dictionary and burning them. Before he consents to take on a new client, the linguiphile asks her whether she uses "infer" and imply" interchangeably.

Wolfe, Miss Blount, and I (and probably Stout) all agree that the answer to this should be "No!" To infer is to deduce a conclusion from available facts or statements, and to imply is to arrange statements in a way that suggests a conclusion. (Suppose I say that Jane's failing store burned down the day after she took out extra insurance; I'm probably implying that police should check for accelerants, and you may infer that I think arson is a possibility.) Saying that "infer" may be used in place of "imply" creates ambiguity and undermines the value of both words.

However, aside from condoning conflation of distinct words, Webster's third edition drew a great deal of criticism for its inclusion of colloquialisms including "litterbug." Here, I am in favor of modernizing language. New words are needed to label new technologies, new cultural practices, and new times in general. Few people these days object when dictionaries add new words; Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, among others, invite publicity when they release lists of new words.

For me, the question to be asked in evaluating word usage is whether it eases or hinders communication. If a new word, or a new use of a word, helps clarify meanings, then I'm all for it. If it muddies the waters, well, I wouldn't burn a whole dictionary over it, but I would definitely call it out as a mistake.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Titles that say 'skip me'

Recently, I smirked at a headline in my local newspaper's business section:
"Frosty interview may signal trouble." Is there really anyone who wouldn't interpret a chilly atmosphere in the interview room to mean that it wasn't going well?

The purpose of a headline is not to convey information. Its purpose is to get you to read the story. The same goes for the title of a book -- the purpose is to get you to pick it up and hopefully even buy it.

Of course, conveying information is one way, and often the best way, to engage a reader's attention. (Other methods include asking questions and using kickers, which I'll discuss in another post.) To do this in a headline, you can summarize the article, or pick a point to highlight, or tell why the reader should care.

However, conveying the information that an article will contain staggeringly obvious points is NOT the way to get people to read it. Why would anyone want to read that column? I'd be more likely to read one with a totally bland headline like "Tips for job interviews" than the one here.

Because I've worked in newspapers, I know that the editor often writes the headline, rather than the reporter or columnist doing so. Sometimes the editor is rushed or even incompetent, so a dumb headline doesn't necessarily mean the article is bad, any more than a witty headline means it's good.

Even a smart, witty, or urgent-sounding headline won't always draw readers. But my goodness, doesn't it help?

Please let me know if you'd like to share any really obvious, dumb, or funny-by-mistake headlines or titles!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Readability

For a lot of this post, I'll be writing mostly for myself, as reminders for future endeavors. However, I hope my thoughts may prove useful for others, as well.

I was talking with several people this weekend about websites, and one thing we all agreed on was the importance of readability. This is an era of short attention spans, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. Anyone who wants visitors to stick around a site or return to it has to make it easy on them.

I'm not talking about talking down to your potential readers. I'm not even talking about the words you use, yet. As a writer, I'm slightly pained to admit it, but as a longtime layout editor, I know that design is on a par with content.

 A relative of mine refuses to visit a restaurant chain because she hates their website so much, with all its flashy, animated clutter. A lot of people have less visceral reactions but still won't spend long on sites that make them uncomfortable. If you're not a professional designer, then just focus on this: A simple, high-contrast layout will make it easier for the visitor to focus on the content instead of being distracted by the packaging.

Now, about the writing: Don't do anything to slow the reader down. If you want to make people stop and think about your topic, great, but don't make them have to stop and figure out what you were trying to say.

First of all, use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Even if you don't care about such things, more of your readers will care than you may expect -- even if they just make silent, subconscious judgments of your site as being less than professional. If you can't find a friend or an editor to review before you post, consider writing a draft of your text in Word or something else that will point out errors. It won't catch them all, though! If readers point out an error, thank them and fix it.

Next, know your audience, and use appropriate vocabulary. If you're trying to reach a mass market, use simple words and short sentences. If you're expecting readers who love language, then share your own favorite words, but don't show off just to seem smart. If you lean toward subordinate clauses and other complexities, read back through and see if you can break anything down.

Don't waste time getting to the point. 
  • If the point is to get people to visit your store or buy your merchandise, put a description of what makes you special on your homepage, along with vital stats including address, hours, and phone number.
  • If the point is to convey information, tell the main point and then go into details, not the other way around. The old journalistic list of who, what, where, when, why and how helps here.
  • If you're telling a joke or a story with a twist at the end, make sure your lead is compelling. See if you can ask some sort of question that will make people want to keep reading in order to find the answer. 
  • If you just want to piffle about your daily life, make sure you give some kind of warning about this early on, so that people don't finish your post, wonder why they wasted their time, and unfollow you.  A rambling post may be okay once in a while, if it helps readers feel they're getting to know you, but try not to make a habit of it.
Finally, reread what you wrote. If it's short enough, read it aloud (subvocally, at least) to slow yourself down and make sure you don't skim over things. If you have time, put it aside and do something else so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes for proofreading. Is there anything that you meant to say and simply left out? Is there any assumed knowledge -- stuff where you know what you meant, but a visitor won't get it? Seeing what you MEANT to write instead of what you DID write is always a danger, so be careful!

These are the main points I try to pay attention to when I'm evaluating my writing style. The content is an issue for another day. If anyone else has suggestions for making writing as readable as possible, I'd love to hear them!