Communication’s Balancing Act

tightrope-walker-copyThere’s a delicate balance between too much and not enough when it comes to effective communication.

Not getting the balance right can harm efficiency. Either people spend time and energy running around trying to find information, or they spend time trying to pick out what they need from a morass of information.

The most frequent problem I encounter is The ESP Presumption. This is when the communicator, or writer, is convinced everyone knows what she is talking about.

The leading indicators of this are puzzled facial expressions, people scratching their heads, and “huh?” repetition.

Another pervasive problem is TMI (too much information). In this case, the writer drones on and on including all types of information no one cares about. This is sometimes known as the Motormouth Condition.

The leading indicators of this are emails, letters, and other communications finding their way quickly to the trash. If this happens in a meeting, glazed eyes and people surreptitiously checking their Snapchat accounts are the main symptoms.

But how can we stop the madness?

With the ESP Presumption, the best trick is to pretend you’re a 4-year-old and keep asking, “Why?” You can assume your audience knows some things, but if you’re not sure, put it in. Use details and examples to illustrate your ideas.

With TMI, you need to ask, “How is this connected? Does my reader need to know this?”

Don’t think achieving that balance is easy. Revision is key. However, the effort means more efficient communication and a better chance of achieving your goals.

A Workout for Svelte Writing

It’s sfattie writingpring, the time of year when many of us try to shed the pounds we collected during a sedentary winter. We want to look good.

Let’s transfer that effort into shedding unnecessary words and phrases from our writing.

We “bulk up” our writing for many reasons: trying to justify the hours spent composing, showing off our vocabulary, or achieving minimum word counts.  We want to look good to our readers.

Our intentions often backfire. Instead of our readers admiring us, they get confused and impatient trying to follow what we really mean.

Just like losing weight, getting rid of flabbiness in our writing isn’t easy, but it’s extremely rewarding.  Do you know that feeling when you can finally fit into those jeans without having to hold your breath? You can get a similar feeling when your reader understands your ideas and enjoys the way you have presented them.

So, what’s our plan of action to tighten up our writing?

Know thy writing. None of us is perfect, so recognize your writing pitfalls. This is the same as knowing your trigger foods when you’re trying to lose weight.

Practice portion control. Sometimes we just can’t stop what we think is a good thing whether it’s consuming lasagna or a metaphor gone wild. Understand that less often gets you more. Don’t go back for seconds or repeat what you already said.

Trim the fat. We all know we need to cut down on fats to lose weight. The same goes for trimming the excess from our writing. This is a necessary, if painful, part of revision. (Why do you think writers refer to revising as “killing our babies”?)

Instead of writing, “in this day and age,” put “today” or “now.”

Substitute active voice (The dog chased the ball.) for passive voice (The ball was chased by the dog.).

Cut out unnecessary -ing constructions. (I swear, if I read “being that” again, I’m going to throw a Pink Pearl eraser at someone!)

Just like losing weight, tightening up our writing takes vigilant effort. But — oh, baby – just imagine the results!

Why Writers Must Plunge In

firstdraftsbuttonFrustration radiating from her, a student seeking guidance on yet another essay wailed, “I’ve done all the research. I just don’t know how to start!”

I nodded sagely. “I’m going to let you in on a secret.”

After shooting around a few furtive glances, I moved in a bit closer for the revelation.

Everyone, including professional writers, has a hard time starting. The secret is we just fake it, just start writing something, and clean it up in revision.”

Yes, folks, at the risk of losing my standing in the Mysteries of Writing Guild, I tell you that beginning a project is one of the greatest hurdles any writer must overcome.  It’s just that practiced writers have learned to just start, prime the pump as it were.

The trap so many writers fall into, especially novice writers, is the idea their work should be perfect first time out.

No! No, I say! There’s a reason the Word Deities have allowed humans to invent the “delete” key! It’s called “revision.”

It is so hard to convince people that putting the effort into revising their writing actually makes life much easier. Students just want to “write it” and hand it in. (Hey, I was a student once. I did the same thing.)

Revision is more than a quality issue; it gives writers the license to write poorly. It strips away the pressure to be perfect. It locks away the mental editor poised with her blue pen and focuses on conjuring the raw diamonds of ideas.

Uninhibited, the literary mustang can be free to write whatever comes to mind only later corralling those thoughts into something organized and understandable by the reader.

So, when you’re faced with starting a writing project, think of the immortal words offered by Nike’s marketing department:

“Just do it!”

Bluntness and the Art of Empathy

Grumpy Cat meme - Hurt your feelings? Too Bad!We all know at least one of them; one person who is, to put it politely, continually blunt.

That’s the type of person who has no problem saying exactly what she thinks, no matter the fallout. Often they’re surprised when people get offended by what and how they say things. Usually, they are the nicest people. It’s just that their mouths engage before their minds can stop them.

I was related to someone like that. It took a long, long time for me to understand that what he was saying wasn’t malicious; it was just unfiltered. And it’s not like I haven’t said some things at times in ways I wish I hadn’t.

It’s hard to revise in the middle of a conversation, especially when emotions run high. We often lose our empathy when we’re hurrying to slip something into the conversation. In the heat of verbal battle, we forget that words can sting – for a long time.

When we write, we have the luxury of time to revise. We have strategies and techniques to give bad news without too much offense. Although I’m not a big fan of passive voice, it is a perfect way to depersonalize a situation to make it more palatable.

Revision is vital – vital, I say – when writing sensitive things, especially in business. We need to put things aside for a while and come back pretending to be the reader.

We have to ask, “How would I feel if I received this?”

Now, I’m not advocating lying or putting too much “spin” on a situation. That just makes people distrust you. What I’m saying is, present sensitive information as if you and the reader, two reasonable people, are examining the circumstances like amoebas under a microscope. Show the reader.

“There you are,” you say. “This is the way it is.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Is there a place for bluntness? Yes, there are times when people have to be shaken out of their apathy. However, we need to use it judiciously. We can’t swing bluntness around like a club, or a lot people will get hurt unnecessarily. And it can demolish our chances to maintain a fruitful relationship.

I was talking with someone and said how mystified I was at the meteoric rise of a certain presidential candidate because of the verbiage he was spouting.

“People want honesty,” she said.

“You can be honest without being offensive,” I replied.

That’s my policy, and I’m sticking with it.

Writer, correct thyself!

Last time, I talked about how important revision is. What we write serves as our introduction to strangers. Just like in a job interview, first impressions are important.

Editing and proofreading are important parts of revision. Although the bulk of our efforts should be spent on organization, we mustn’t forget the details. Think of it as a wedding cake. The structure is vital, but it’s the details that make everyone go, “Ahhh!”

“If I make a mistake, how can I know that I’ve made it let alone correct it?”

Never fear! It’s usually not as hard as we want to believe.

The first thing to remember is that we begin writing by just trying to get the information or story down. We never expect that first effort to be perfect because we know we’ll go back and revise it.

We all have weak spots in our writing that we should become familiar with. I know that I tend to repeat certain words and phrases. I also have a hard time spelling certain words (truly, judgment, etc.). Then there’s my tendency toward overblown vocabulary, parenthetical statements, and convoluted sentences. I know I do all this, so I look for these when I’m revising.

Spelling and Word Use

For those who have trouble spelling and using the correct words, there’s good news – and bad news. Most word processing software has spell check and grammar check capabilities. Spell check is very helpful, especially for those of us whose minds work faster than our fingers. I love it when it changes “adn” to “and” automatically.

However, spell check doesn’t know the difference between homonyms, words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Their, there, and they’re are major culprits as are its and it’s. Learn how each should be used and work to always use them correctly. (One of my pet peeves is alot, which is not a real word.)

Sentence Structure

Lots of people have problems with sentence structure. They either tend to write sentence fragments, or they write run-on sentences.

Fragments often happen when we start a sentence with a dependent clause and neglect to write in the independent clause that it depends on. This is why many people were told in elementary school not to begin a sentence with “because.” Because he was the cutest and nicest boy at the school dance. That is not a sentence. We are left asking, “So?”

Think of fragments as building a hot rod, except that you neglect to put the right rear hub and wheel on. It looks cool, but it isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes we want to use fragments for effect, but we can’t make the mistake of thinking we can get away with it all the time. Then it goes from writing for effect to sloppiness.

Run-on sentences come in two forms: fused and comma splices. Fused sentences happen when we just stick a bunch of independent clauses together without giving the reader clues, through punctuation, that they are different thoughts. I saw a program about Scotland yesterday it was interesting it talked about kilts and whiskey it talked about food including haggis it had a segment about Scottish games the contestants threw a bunch of things the caber, or a big pole, was the most unusual.

Comma splices are way too common. Yes, I know; nobody likes, commas. They’re a pain in the neck. However, sometimes we ask the comma to carry too heavy a burden. Harry and Maude went to the movies, they saw “Guardians of the Universe.” Here we are asking the comma to hold up two independent clauses on its own. It needs help. Either put in a coordinating conjunction after the comma or replace the comma with a semicolon. (By the way, grammar check doesn’t recognize comma splices as grammatically incorrect – one of the many reasons why we shouldn’t rely on it too much.)

Listen, this is not rocket science. Does it take effort? Yes! Is it easy? No, but then writing well is never really easy. Yet the payoff for all this hard work is that our readers have a much better impression of us.