What does pellucid mean?

pellucidReading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: pellucid.

There are certain words I like mainly because of the sound of them. Take, pellucid, for example. Isn’t that a beautiful word?

I encountered it, recently, when I read the book Let the Great World Spin, by Column McCann. Here is the sentence in which he used it:

There was a smattering of hair across his scalp, but his eyes were a pellucid blue. 

Frequently used to describe eyes, the word means “clear” or “translucent” or “something that allows the maximum passage of light.” It also can be used metaphorically, to describe something clear in meaning, expression or style, such as pellucid writing.

The adjective, which dates to the 1610s, comes from the Latin pellucidus meaning “transparent.” And this, in turn, comes from from pellucere meaning to “shine through,” from per- “through” and lucere “to shine.”

Incidentally, there is also an eye disease called pellucid marginal degeneration. It refers to corneal thinning and I imagine that’s why the doctor who invented the term expropriated the word. Too bad, because I think it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.

Initially, I thought my favourable response could be attributed to the double L sound. But on reflection, I think it’s the entire word: pəˈlo͞osid/ The “pell” makes me think of a bell. And the o͞o sound (reminiscent of the word moon?) is delightful to speak and to hear. 

No Responses/Posted April 23rd, 2014 in Word of the week

The magic of 5 minutes

writer's blockReading time: About 3 minutes

Would you like to banish your writer’s block? Here is an easy-to-implement suggestion that’s guaranteed to work…

Clients of mine are sometimes surprised when I suggest that they write for only five minutes a day. “That sounds crazy, embarrassing,” they tell me. “What possible benefit could I get from that?”

Writing for five minutes is not only a perfectly reasonable goal, it’s the most sensible one possible, if you’re dealing with writer’s block or even writer’s resistance. I usually hear two big complaints about writing (listed below as A and B). Here are my answers as to how the short-bursts-of-writing strategy solves both of them:

Complaint A: I don’t have time to write:

1) Five minutes is such a ridiculously small amount of time that you can’t possibly not do it. So you wake up five minutes early and rush to do it before breakfast. Or you do it five minutes before going to sleep at night. Even when my triplets were three-years-old (the height of craziness in a toddler-run household) I could have managed it. Even the President of the US could write for five minutes a day if he chose to. Even you could write for five minutes a day, no matter how jam-packed your schedule.

2) If you commit to writing five minutes a day you’ve taken away the need to make a really hard decision. You’re not deciding whether to write (hard decision), you’re only deciding when to squeeze in your five minutes (relatively easier). Wouldn’t you like some more easy decisions like this in your life?

Complaint B: I can’t accomplish anything worthwhile in five minutes:

3) Stick with this practice for at least a week, and you will be astonished by your feeling of accomplishment. Yes! Even writing for five measly minutes will give you a great sense of satisfaction because of your ability to make a promise to yourself and keep it.

We all promise ourselves things all the time and fail to deliver. This sets up a stream of negative self-chatter in our heads: “I’m no good” “I’m so disorganized” “I can never manage to get anything done.” But if you commit to writing five minutes a day (and write it on a list so you can check it off) you will feel accomplished. Proud. Perhaps even master of your domain. (Although I don’t mean that in the sense Seinfeld did.) This feeling of accomplishment will be invaluable to you not just for your writing world but for the rest of your life, too.

4) If you’re writing for five minutes and have more to say, then you can keep on writing. This is the only tricky rule because it’s essential that you not view “writing more” as an obligation. It’s not. Your only obligation is to write for five minutes. Nor should you write so much that you risk burning out. For this reason it’s generally a good idea to limit your writing time.  But going a little bit over 5 minutes is okay. Many runners make it their rule to put on their running shoes and head out the door, distance be damned — and then end up running 5 km just because they’re already doing it. Similarly, you may find your five minutes turning into 50. But if they don’t, that’s okay. The rule is to write for five minutes. If you’ve done that, you’re a winner.

5) Over time, the five-minute rule will turn into a habit. It takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to develop a habit but writing for five minutes a day is so easy that I think it will fall closer to the 18-day end of the spectrum for most people. Once you’ve established the habit you can start gradually ratcheting up the amount of time (or not, depending on how you feel.)

As you may know, I used to suffer from writer’s block, although it’s been years since I fought that particular demon. My current Achilles’ heel is paperwork. I loathe and detest dealing with it, and I have a special contempt for the need to file it.

Recently, however, I’ve been spending five minutes a day taming my in-basket and I have to tell you this habit has miraculously transformed my attitude. Instead of feeling bowed down by paperwork, the five-minute daily time investment has convinced me this is a monster I can tame. I would never have predicted this.

When I wrote about the 7 habits of highly effective writers, several years ago, I hinted at the usefulness of writing in small bursts. But I don’t think I realized the absolute effectiveness of the strategy. If you feel any hesitation about writing, I urge you to take the five-minute trick for a test-drive.

How do you persuade yourself to write when you really don’t feel like it? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

8 Responses/Posted April 22nd, 2014 in Power Writing

10 words to cut

10 words to cutReading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,”  in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article about 10 words to cut from your writing… 

I like editing techniques that are really easy to use. Not every understands the passive voice, for example, so I like the way the Hemingway App simply highlights it for you.

Recently, my daily newspaper carried an article outlining 10 words that, writer Shanna Mallon argued, should be cut from every piece of business writing. I love this sort of approach because it’s clear, concise and easy to implement.

Her words are:

Just
Really
Very
Perhaps/maybe
Quite
Amazing
Literally
Stuff
Things
Got

I agree with all her suggestions, except perhaps for the word “stuff,” which I like using, occasionally. I value the informality of it. If you have doubts about any of the other words, however, I suggest you read her rationale.

My only complaint about her article? Her attribution of comment about not having the time to write a short letter is incorrect. Scholars cannot agree who said this, and, in addition to Mark Twain it has been variously attributed to Blaise Pascal, Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill.

No Responses/Posted April 21st, 2014 in Writing about writing

7 business cliches you should avoid…

business clichesReading time: About 2 minutes

Clichés are overused expressions. And business cliches…well, they’re bad for business…

Are clichés really that bad in business? Yes. And let me tell you why.

Clichés are overused expressions. At one time they might have been original. But now they’re old and stale. They make reading (or listening to a speaker) boring and bland. This is bad news for any business. After all, you don’t excite employees by being boring or bland. Nor do you inspire customers.

Words matter. So don’t serve your readers or listeners tired ones. Instead, create new phrases, new similes and metaphors. Excite your audience. Don’t give them the same old blah-blah-blah. The phrase “like lipstick on a pig” became a cliche as soon as it exited the mouth of Sarah Palin. Come up with something better than that.

Clichés don’t add to your writing — instead, they weaken it.  Because they come to us so easily, we usually write clichés without thought. And that lack of thought is what will tell your audience that you don’t care about them.  No employee or customer wants to feel that sort of neglect.

Furthermore, clichés seldom say exactly what them mean. They’re usually vague and imprecise. You can do better.

Here are seven business cliches you should be able to avoid:

Let’s think outside the box. We may live in houses or apartments (which, in truth, are kind of like boxes) but the image is so old it’s lost its oomph. If a leader said to me, “Let’s think of something radical, something unique,” I’d be far more motivated than if he started talking about (boring old) boxes.

Let’s walk the talk. Yes, let’s do that. But let’s not say that. Rhyme doesn’t help make this thought profound. It’s still perfectly banal and obvious.

Here’s a win-win situation. I don’t like the word “situation” because it fails to give me a visual image. Adding win-win to it doesn’t help. Of course, life is better when both sides win. Did you really have to go to business school to learn that?

We need a paradigm shift here. Who doesn’t? If we can think of new ways to do things, maybe we’ll make some money. And if we can thing of really new ways to do things, perhaps we can make even more money. Another thought that shouldn’t have required business school.

Let’s blue sky this. OK, the word “blue” helps slightly here. At least it gives me a visual image — and, to boot, it’s a cheerful one. But I dislike turning a noun phrase (“blue sky”) into a verb. A sky doesn’t do anything except sit there.

We need to tear down some silos. I have yet to see a silo anywhere except on the prairie. Companies with departments that don’t talk to each other have very little in common with facilities for storing grain. This is not only an old metaphor, it’s a particularly weak one.

This should go viral. This is a more recent cliche — a generation older than “this might go postal.” But, really, the digital world cannot describe every aspect of life. If you want something to be really popular, I suggest you begin by thinking of a more inventive way to describe popularity.

Cliches have no place in writing. Anymore than lipstick has a place on a pig.

3 Responses/Posted April 18th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

It is like his own shadow has leaped up to get him

Colum McCannReading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some figurative language employed by Colum McCann.

I read the Colum McCann novel Let the Great World Spin more than seven months ago. It took me four efforts to get through it (I kept stalling at the end of the first chapter) but I’m so glad I persisted.

It’s a richly written story about 10 different lives that intersect in New York city. And the figurative language? Amazing.

I stumbled across my notes from the book last week. I’d intended to post them months ago but they’d become tucked inside a folder inside a folder on my hard drive.

When I re-examined them, I could see that McCann has a particular eye (or is that ear?) for personification. I’ve listed those five examples first.

Sometimes a bit of plastic caught against a pipe or touched the top of the chain-link fence and backed away gracelessly, like it had been warned. 

They [memories] rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward. 

The dock was old and useless, jutting out into the pond like a taunt. 

The snow re-instructed the light, bent it, colored it, bounced it. 

It is like his own shadow has leaped up to get him. 

 One looks for the chink in the armor, the leg of the piano stool shorter than the other, the sadness that would detach us from her, but the truth is we enjoyed each other, all three of us, and never so evidently as those Sundays when the rain fell gray over Dublin Bay and the squalls blew fresh against the windowpane.

The long-sleeved shirt he wore was tight to his body and the bones of his ribcage were like some odd musical instrument. 

If you’re planning your summer reading, this would be an excellent book to add to your list.

No Responses/Posted April 17th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does petrichor mean?

petrichorReading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: petrichor.

Today I have a word that I did not discover through my reading, but, instead, learned from my son. The word is petrichor.

Isn’t that mellifluous? This noun refers to the smell of rain after a long dry spell. I didn’t know that such a word existed but it was born in 1964 (exactly 30 years before my children) in an article in the journal Nature, written by Australian researchers I. J. Bear and R. G. Thomas. 

The word comes from the Greek petros, meaning “stone” and ichor, referring to the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. (I especially love that part. So evocative!)

In their Nature article, Bear and Thomas argue that the smell comes from an oil exuded by plants and absorbed by clay, soil and rocks during dry spells. Then, when it rains, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, emitted by wet soil, which is what produces the distinctive scent.

No Responses/Posted April 16th, 2014 in Word of the week

How to complain

how to write a complaintReading time: About 3 minutes

Do you know how to write a complaint letter? The rules are straightforward but surprisingly challenging to apply…

My 20-year-old son, who’s studying to become an opera singer, last week gave me a complaint he’d written about one of his professors. He wanted to know if it was “too harsh.” More importantly, because the complaint was to be anonymous, he wanted reassurance it couldn’t be traced back to him.

It wasn’t surprising my son asked me. My family considers me to be the diva of complaint letters — I’ve had denied health insurance claims turned around, received free services and even landed the occasional free product.

Here’s how you can achieve the same results. Note that I’ve listed these tips in order of importance…

1)   Keep your letter short and to the point. It should never be more than one page long including addresses and letterhead. (This will limit you to roughly 300 words.) If you need to include additional info, make it an appendix or an attachment, rather than part of the main letter. Busy people, like customer service managers or CEOs, don’t have the time to read essays. Being short will also force you to focus on the one or two things that are most crucial to you, which means you’re less likely to sound like a crank.

2)   Don’t try to be clever or smart. Sarcasm and strong language (my son had used the words “snake oil salesman” to describe his prof) may make you feel better but it won’t help your complaint. Instead, use friendly — or, at the very least, studiously neutral — language. If you want to express emotion, try to sound sad and disappointed rather than enraged and angry. And never sound gleeful about the chance to exercise your complaint or show off your superior vocabulary.

3)   Address the letter to a specific person. Establishing a personal connection is one of the keys to successful complaints. Get the name of someone, spell it correctly and get his/her title as well.

4)   Understand that everyone listens to the radio station WII-FM. Also known as “What’s In It For Me,” this network plays the songs that cause all of our toes to tap. Try to figure out how what you have to complain about is also hurting the company/organization you are complaining to. In my son’s case, he feels the professor is using techniques that will damage the voices of young singers. Is he right? Who knows? But I bet it’s a concern that will make the university sit up and pay attention.

5)    Ask for something specific. Don’t just complain. Tell them exactly how you want them to make it up to you. Do you want a fee waived? Do you want a return accepted? Do you want a complete refund? Do you want a professor instructed to teach in a different way? Or do you simply want an apology? Spell it out.

6)   Be persistent. If you can’t get what you want from your initial complaint, be prepared to take it up the chain of command. Last year when I tried to set up a merchant account with a credit card company (and they completely botched the application process, wasting three hours of my time). I asked for them to waive the $200 annual fee. “That’s not possible,” the rep told me. “Then who do I need to ask?” I replied. He told me and I emailed that person, who immediately granted my request. (I was amused, but not surprised, to see how quickly and easily something deemed “impossible” could be achieved.) Show some grit and you’re more likely to succeed.

7)   Take excellent notes. Whenever I make a complaint about a company, I put a note in my iPhone’s contact list, filed by the name of the company. In the “notes” section I add the date, the problem and the name of the person I wrote or spoke with and his/her response. Because I always approach this in exactly the same way, and because it’s linked to my cell phone, that’s always with me, I never lose my notes. (This is invaluable with verbal complaints. Sometimes simply reciting the names of all the customer service reps I’ve spoken with is enough to get the company to pay attention to my complaint.)

Yes, complaining effectively takes effort. But it’s almost always worth it!

If you’ve been thinking about buying my popular book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, this your final warning that the price will rise tonight at midnight and be effective as of Wednesday April 16, 2014.  Note that shipping is currently free anywhere in the world.

What’s your biggest complaint-writing success story? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment here or elsewhere on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

19 Responses/Posted April 15th, 2014 in Power Writing

Is reading really dangerous for writers?

Thomas Chatterton WilliamsReading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written by Thomas Chatterton Williams…

Is reading really a “dangerous game” for writers? As a writing coach who always encourages people to read, I was intrigued to stumble across an intriguing essay on the topic by novelist Thomas Chatteron Williams (pictured adjacent).

He begins with an Annie Dilliard quote: “[a writer should be] careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” Yes, I agree with that. You don’t want to read bad writing before writing yourself because — with those inept or clunky sentences rolling around in your brain — you are more likely to produce similarly bad ones.

But good writing? I’ve never had a problem with that. Neither has Thomas Chatterton Williams, it turns out. He goes on to describe how reading Teju Cole’s novel Open City helped him wean himself off the negative effects of  potboiler writing. (The potboiler in question was Game of Thrones, which I’ve never read or watched on TV, although my kids adore it.) He writes:

15 minutes with Cole was like a palette cleanser on my mind, a spoonful of cool sorbet after a long and heavy meal. 

And I heartily agree with his conclusion:

The solution, I’m convinced nowisn’t to read less (that would be boring) or even, as Dillard suggests, to censor what is taken in. On the contrary, the answer seems to be to take in more.

I’ve been reading a fair bit of mediocre writing lately. My new goal for this week is to pick up a great novel. I could use a spoonful of cool sorbet…

No Responses/Posted April 14th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Walk away from the lecturn…

public speaking techniqueReading time: Just over 1 minute

Here’s a public speaking technique that requires nerves of steel but that will give you a very big pay-off…

Have you ever seen a public speaker who is prepared to abandon the “safety” of his or her lectern? It is riveting!

I’ll never forget the time produced an event for a client of mine. I’d chosen the keynote speaker because I’d heard her interviewed on radio and she was both interesting and articulate. And when she spoke at our event, she exhibited both of these qualities. But she impressed me even more, when she launched her speech by walking directly into the audience.

Why does that work so well? A few reasons, I think…

  • It displays the speaker’s mastery of his/her material. People who walk into the audience doesn’t need to rely on notes — instead, they speak extemporaneously. (In our case this was additionally impressive because the group I work for is academic.)
  • It increases the attention and interest of the audience. It also encourages responses if you’re asking questions. (Furthermore, it prevents you from being labelled “aloof” — which is what can happen if you stay wedded to your lectern.)
  • It makes it easier for the speaker to make eye contact. This is because it brings the speaker closer to the audience (without notes!) From this proximity, what else can you do but look in the eyes of your audience? Eye contact helps you get your message across. It also allows you to sense boredom (in which case you can adjust your speech) or enthusiasm (which will pump you up.)

At the end of this presentation, our speaker earned a standing ovation. I’ve never before seen that occur in an academic setting.

She deserved it.

If you want to earn similar respect, consider walking away from the lectern the next time you’re asked to be a public speaker.

Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 Responses/Posted April 11th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

A dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job…

Barbara KingsolverReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a selection of metaphors and similes from Barbara Kingsolver. 

I became a fan of novelist Barbara Kingsolver when I read her breakout book The Poisonwood Bible. It still holds a place on my (constantly changing) list of lifetime top 10 novels.

Her more recent book, Flight Behavior, didn’t affect me the same way, but I found much to admire in it. I particularly like her way with figurative language, as these four examples demonstrate.

Their little faces turned up to her like the round hearts of two daisies: She loves me, loves me not.

Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.

The trees clenched the last of summer’s leaves in their fists.

The fir forest had its own spooky weather, as if these looming conifers held an old grudge, peeved at being passed over.

My favourite? It has to be: Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job. 

I live in Vancouver, where we suffer through overcast weather (if not drizzle, if not driving rain) most of the time. Comparing it to a bad drywall job seemed perfectly apt to me.

No Responses/Posted April 10th, 2014 in Figurative language