Posts Tagged ‘Writing Style

Metaphor: The Open Road

Can we imagine any part of our life without using a metaphor? Do we need metaphors to create meaning? (Click image for credit and source)


All is connected, all is real, and all is metaphor.

Do you think this statement is true?

Recently I ran across a website of metaphor examples. According to its author, the site is based on the idea that metaphorical relationships can be considered to be “universal” in scope: a sort of Rosetta Stone between disciplines, if you will.

A related view is that metaphors provide a set of tools to compare two (seemingly) unlike things that are alike in at least one important way. Pick the tool of your choice – simile, analogy, personification, and others – and use it to explore and better understand the unknowns.

Then there’s this definition: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea … Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance.”

And what of visual metaphorsCognitive metaphors? Root metaphors?

If you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that metaphors of all kinds appear to be an indispensable key to understanding as well as creating our reality. They also allow us to connect to other forms of reality and to live beyond the boundaries of our own space.

Could we write, or communicate in any way, without metaphors?

Can you think of any aspect of your life that is metaphor-free?

If you were deprived of all metaphors, could you exist?

Do you think humans are responsible for creating metaphors, or do we just notice all the connections around us and attempt to describe their interfaces and correspondences?

In a recent post titled Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors, I discussed IARPA’s Metaphor Program, which seeks to “exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture” in order to “characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

Although analytically and intellectually admirable, at least as a mathematical construct, such a project may ultimately prove too daunting to be practicable, because what metaphors say is so complex, interlocking and interrelated that it seems quite a challenge to untangle all the possible meanings and connections. And never mind that all of those qualities are dynamic.

If, as some suggest, metaphors are the foundation of our conceptual systems, then apparently we require them in order to think and act.

And if we can only understand or experience one thing in terms of another, that is, by using metaphors, then what don’t metaphors say?

Now it’s your turn: Do you think metaphors are the engine of communication? Could language itself be construed as a form of metaphor for life? Without communication of all kinds would life exist? Thanks for leaving your comments!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Conversational Style in Communicating Technical Information - Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you think it is ever appropriate to use the word you in technical documents?

At one company, where I was working as a contract freelance writer on a technical-writing project, the company’s lead technical writer decreed that no one was to use the word you in any technical document. Ever. Under any circumstances. For any reason whatsoever. He considered it too unscientific and non-technical.

For example, we were supposed to write: After the user enters the data, he or she should check the form before clicking the Submit button, instead of: After you enter the data, check the form before clicking the Submit button.

Technical Style

The first example sentence illustrates technical or scientific style, which is impersonal and presents content in a way that largely avoids personal pronouns (no you allowed, for example) and does not directly address the reader. This style favors the passive voice (which also helps avoid those pesky pronouns) and promotes nominalization (a process in which verbs are turned, sometimes illegally and indecorously, into nouns).

If you have ever read texts overflowing with words like optimization, monetization and the like—nouns created from verbs by the writer—then you are familiar with the technique of nominalization.

Technical style is frequently used in processes and procedures, which place the emphasis on the sequence of the action rather than on giving directions to the reader. In other words, a step is described, not written as an order or directive. Thus, the user is addressed indirectly and impersonally in the third person as he, she, one, the operator, the technician, the user, and so on.

All of that is supposed to sound more technical and scientific—as well as more objective and authoritative, in the opinion of some.

Conversational Style

The second example sentence shows conversational style, in which you write to readers as though you are speaking to them. This style approves of using personal pronouns (you, for example) as well as the judicious use of contractions (don’t instead of do not).

As a bonus, conversational style encourages the use of the active voice, which adds conviction and liveliness to writing, and is almost always more concise than the passive voice. Readers find “action verbs” appealing, because such verbs are direct and show motion.

Using a conversational tone in technical communication can be quite effective and very engaging, as long as you don’t overdo it. Specifically, “not overdoing it” means to refrain from writing in a colloquial or chatty manner, using slang, and attempting to be humorous.

Conversational style is often used when writing directions, because you are telling the reader how to complete an action. Thus, the writer addresses the reader as you. For example: You must not enter a space between the numbers in this field. When writers use the command form of a verb, however, the you is not explicitly stated: Use only clean tools.

Striking a Balance

So, to you or not to you, that is the question.

In my opinion, it is preferable first to define and understand your audience, define the purpose of the document and understand your company’s communications objectives for the document, and then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to use the word you (and by implication, a more conversational style).

Given those parameters, I’m pretty certain you won’t be able to decide to “always” or “never” use the word you. It’s more likely you’ll find it necessary to strike a balance regarding its usage.

Even if your company has a style guide that addresses this issue, I’ll bet there will be times when its rules about when to use the word you will need some tweaking. What matters, after all, is how well you communicate with your audience, your customers, and if you have to bend a rule or make an occasional exception, then so be it. (Just be sure to discuss it with your manager first, of course.)

What do you think? Has the issue of using the word you in technical documents ever become a bone of contention in your company?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

In recent decades, technical writing has been particularly associated with engineering, computer hardware and software, and scientific fields in general.

However, we all know that technical content may appear in many other types of writing, such as science fiction. Newspapers, magazines and other media may also publish articles or videos that deal with technical subjects. Should we include those in the category of “technical writing”?

And what about the earliest cuneiform tablets unearthed in Sumeria (now part of Iraq) that document agricultural information, astronomical knowledge, medical procedures and business practices? Are those 6,000-year-old clay tablets examples of technical writing?

Consider the plans for the vast harbor-works of Pharos, the lighthouse island off what eventually became Alexandria (Egypt), which were drawn up by Cretan and Phoenician marine architects near the end of the third millennium BCE. Do those count as “technical writing”?

Or do we insist that “technical writing” has only become a valid practice since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when the modern scientific revolution began?

If we define technical writing as follows, then I think, as the examples above suggest, we could argue that technical writing has existed since writing was invented:

  • Focuses on the technical details of any field or subject
  • Has a specific purpose, which informs the entire document
  • Addresses a well-defined audience
  • Contains content worth reading
  • Gears the content to the particular audience
  • Values facts (which can be verified) and accuracy
  • Uses a simple but varied style
  • Has a consistent logical organization
  • Maintains an objective, impartial tone

Would you agree with this definition? Would you add anything? Must all of these attributes be present for material to be labeled as “technical writing”?

I’d like to hear what you think.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  LexPower

The deep-water oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico continues to blast out miles-long plumes of unmitigated disaster. Slimes of black and rusty oil, toxic bursts of methane and jets of volatile organics geyser outward, exploding, spurting, surging, leaping from the wellhead.

This defective, uncontrollable wellhead spews a cataclysmic onslaught that befouls the sea, the land, the air, and an entire way of life for generations to come. Up to 60,000 barrels a day for more than a month now. No end in sight. The misguided use of underwater dispersants increases the scope of the problem and makes cleanup unbearably arduous and maybe futile.

How to describe the genesis of this wellhead run amok? Was it due to carelessness? Stupidity? A gluttonous, one-quarter worldview that places profits before conscience? A freak accident? A fool’s notion of self-interest that blew up in everyone’s face? Whatever the pathetic and wretched misdeeds, the lazy missteps and pitiful intentions, our world is now sorely afflicted.

What do we want to know about pelican chicks crushed in their nests, their fluffy down tousled by hydrocarbon-laced sea breezes, because those who were placing booms did not know or care enough to avoid nesting sites?

What do we say to the Louisiana pancake batfish, which lives 1,500 feet below the surface, as its insides burn and dissolve from ingesting an oil-coated meal?

How should we talk about the numb, grief-stricken look in an oysterman’s eyes, the weary slump of his shoulders, as he stares out toward the Gulf, his mind whirring with memories, aware that 100 years of a family business are dying along with the oyster beds?

What words can we offer to help comfort the residents of the Gulf Coast states?  Caring … moral support … financial reimbursement … volunteer … tourist … we stand with you. Do these suffice? What else?

How can we express our own feelings about the catastrophe? Rage. Bitterness. Anger. Bravery. Fear. Horror. Compassion. Grief. Patience. Shock. Steadfastness. Hatred. Anxiety. Dread. Fury. Courage. Hmm, courage? What else do we have to muster in order to move forward?

And what abject apologies do we beg Mother Nature to accept? “Sorry” just does not cut it. What about “We promise to do better next time, Ma’am”? Or perhaps “If we grovel, would you please, pretty please, let us off the hook on this one”? Maybe “Just make it all go away”? Nah. Our only realistic option is to start screaming “Mommy, help us!!”

Still we keep right on drilling and pumping, don’t we, even in the most tenuous and risky environments. All things considered, then, we’d better start polishing our words, better start honing our descriptions, better start buffing our phrases to a lustrous shine. Because it looks like we’re going to need a lot of them in the years ahead.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Have you ever had to ask someone to do something and then motivate them to act?

Maybe you’re trying to get people to donate to your cause, or prompt a customer to pay a bill, or inspire your employees to adopt a procedure, or get a company to give you a job interview, or ask strangers to vote for you. All sorts of situations require us to write persuasively in order to get what we want.

Swaying someone’s mind can be hard work, as we all know. So here are some tips for a better shot at achieving your goals:

What Is Your Purpose?

Before you begin the first draft, decide: What is the purpose of the piece I am writing? What is it exactly that I want my readers to do?

Be very specific in your answer, because your stated purpose becomes the focus for every detail, statistic, set of results, observation, fact, argument and data point you will include. Everything must support your purpose.

Who Is Your Audience?

To persuade people, you must know who they are, so that you can find a point of agreement where they can say “oh yeah, that’s true,” or “that’s right,” and get on board with you.

This means you need to identify who your audience is. Are they individuals you know? Consumers? Retailers? Strangers? Companies in a particular industry? People who have a certain type of job? Members who belong to a specific organization? People in a certain age group?

Research your audience as much as possible. Get all the demographic data you can. And then be prepared to make some general assumptions as well.

What Does Your Audience Care About?

Once you know who your audience is, you should be able to define the kinds of arguments they will respond to. This will help you determine whether to lean toward the logical or the emotional.

You also need to define the kinds of issues they care about. What moves your audience? Where do their interests lie? What are their touchpoints, those areas where they feel they have some skin in the game?

When in doubt, paint the issues with a broad brushstroke, so you include as many people as possible.

What Tone Works?

The tone you use in writing reveals your attitudes toward your subject and your audience. The right tone is absolutely critical. Control tone, or risk losing your audience.

In general, a positive tone is more persuasive than a negative, sarcastic, humorous or angry one. So write positively, and express confidence and hope, warmth and cheer. If you can do that, and make your readers feel empowered and good about themselves, you will write persuasively.

What other techniques can you think of to make your writing more persuasive?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

No matter how well you write something, no matter what you intend the “take away” to be, unexpected interpretations can happen. Do happen. Has any piece of writing ever been understood in the same way by all those who read it?

One of the basic facts of writing and language usage is that every reader imposes her or his own interpretation on every word, phrase and idea.

You can prove this for yourself by assembling a short list of proper nouns, including the names of products, ice cream flavors, plants, animals, people, and anything else you can think of. Then, as you meet people throughout your day, ask them what their response is to each name. Do they like it? What qualities do they associate with it? What feelings does the name evoke?

Each person you ask will bring to the encounter a different set of responses, based on their own experiences, personality, tastes and impressions. Every person you approach will respond from the perspective of a unique life history. The impact of a name on someone is quite unpredictable.

And the same is true of other words as well. The dictionary may give a standardized definition of a word, but to each of us that word connotes something slightly different, because we decode it in our own context. It is so interesting (and often frustrating) that the sense and feeling of a word changes from person to person.

It is very difficult to gauge how someone will respond to what you write. What shades of meaning do your readers see in your words? What worlds of interpretation can a single phrase summon?

Now, when you write in business and technology, you need to try to stop your audience from reading unintended meanings into what you say. An effective technique for achieving this is to “pace and guide.”

This means, first, that you know your audience, which determines content, style, language level, and so on. In essence, you pace your content and how you present it to your audience’s ability and interest.

Second, it means that you must use what is known as the “general-concrete” pattern. In this method of writing, general and abstract statements are followed by a concrete case. Use specific examples, illustrations and detailed explanations to get your exact point across to your readers. Don’t just present concepts and sweeping generalities. Clarify each one with a concrete case to convey what you mean and help prevent unintended interpretations.

Although you may not always be able to prevent the amazing and acrobatic human mind from parsing your words in ways that skew your intended message, the “pace and guide” technique will help you avoid many misunderstandings.

What do you think? What writing techniques do you use to communicate your meaning accurately?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

Somewhere along the way in nearly every person’s life, there comes a time when it is necessary to write a letter of complaint to someone. A time when you feel you have exhausted all other reasonable avenues, yet still cannot get the offending party — merchant? neighbor? government agency? family member? colleague? — to cooperate and work toward a satisfactory resolution.

Now, assuming you truly wish to find a workable solution to your dilemma, let me share with you the most important secret you need to know and absolutely must use in writing your letter: Avoid emotionalism.

Emotional words are loaded words. They can be loaded with accusations, expressions of anger or hatred, insinuation, libel, spite, self-righteousness, sarcasm, condescension, sneering, blaming, and name-calling. They can be loaded with assumptions and indignation. They can be loaded with fact-free imaginings and derogatory statements.

Think such an emotional approach will help you win your argument? Surmount the problem? Resolve the issue? Enlighten the other person and help them see the error of their ways? Make them realize you are not someone to trifle with? No. Rudeness will only decrease the other party’s sympathy for you and reduce your chances of success. The road to disaster is often paved with emotionalism.

So before you pen the REAL letter, sit down and write the I-Accuse-You-Horrible-Person-Rant-Cant-Whack-‘Em-Smack-‘Em-You’ll-Never-Forget-This-Letter missive. Take out your verbal flame-thrower and scorch the earth. Discharge all your roiling emotions, so that your mind will be free to deal with the facts of the case in a cool, calm and equable manner.

Now, place another sheet of paper before you, and write the real letter, the one in which you methodically and logically state your case in a polite and businesslike way:

  • Explain the problem clearly.
  • Get to the point.
  • Be as brief as possible (save the over-wrought narrative, and do not go into excessive detail).
  • Use objective, neutral words to present the facts as you see them.
  • Stick to the issues.
  • Be honest in your descriptions.
  • Be clear in your objective. What action do you want your reader to take?

Keep the letter overnight, and review it the next day. Delete any shred of emotionalism. Remember, you want to win, and loaded words will not help you achieve your goal.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas   lexpower

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