February 2010 Archives

An embarrassed writer

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I don't like to be embarrassed in anything. Most of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way. It's probably a safe bet to say that 99% of everyone out there in the great land we call the Internet would also agree.

Lately, standards at the Setonian have been sorely lacking. Our most recent edition was unfortunately quite exemplary of the lack of focus and attention paid to the paper. There were a litany of mistakes throughout and to writers like myself who fell victim to poor editing and lack of focus during the compilation process this is flat out embarrassing.

I don't want to put the onus on any one single person because it's unfortunately on a much grander scale. Things really are that bad I fear. Some people are more at fault than others and I hope they recognize that.

The problems have a wide range of severity and description. Most of them result from not spending enough time looking over the work and just general carelessness.

Again, without naming names, some copy editors attempted and successfully altered several quotes in the last two issues. This is not only embarrassing but completely unethical and damaging to the writer who used the quotes. Changing quotes is completely UNACCEPTABLE. It should never happen, period.

In some stories, the leads have also been altered. For those who are unfamiliar with journalism, the lead is the most important part of any story. When somebody seeks to change it and turns it into two separate fragments, there need to be some serious changes. A fourth grader knows not to fragment sentences. Why can't a college student who studies English notice this?

Many of the headlines and captions have been pathetic at best. This also reflects poorly upon the photographers and writers. It's such a simple problem to fix with just a little bit more effort. It's also one of the most obvious problems and really makes the paper and all those involved in its production look like numbskulls.

I don't see the point in pointing out any specific stories or photos where any of these problems arose.  I'm sure any person reading with half a brain can recognize the litany of mistakes.

To our loyal and supportive audience, consider this my personal apology on behalf of everyone for our carelessness and lack of attention to deal.

To those on the staff who are guilty of these errors or have been the victim of them, consider this a wake-up call. We need to work together and fix these issues. And we most definitely can address and solve them all.

Changes need to be made and they need to be made now. I don't have all the solutions, but I do know all the problems and know how to fix many of them. Let's not let anything like this ever happen again. 

Long live the written word

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"The preacher speaks only to those who are present; the scribe preaches to those still to come. The sermon, once it is heard, vanishes into thin air; its text, if written down and read even a thousand times, does not lose its impact. The preacher's office dies with him. The scribe may have passed away long ago, but the book he copied still provides moral instruction." Trithemius, page 473

 

So if I'm dead, nobody will be able to hear me speak? And I was so sold on the talking to dead people thing, too. While Trithemius' point is rather obvious and simple, it demonstrates the one clear advantage that writing and manuscript holds over the spoken word.

People aren't very trusting these days. Any account of a story or event that was simply witnessed by a person within earshot is instantly scrutinized as hearsay. If you don't record it or have a written account of it then your version must be false. Whether this kind of criticism is right or wrong is beside the point. It's more important today than ever to have written concrete evidence supporting whatever it is you're telling in order for it to be accepted by the general population.

I'm also of the belief that when you write you are offering it up, consciously or otherwise, to an audience to read. Therefore, it's best to have your writing be as accurate as possible. Imagine how many legendary and mythical tales there are in human history that were never written down and have now been long since forgotten. Even those that were transcribed are not necessarily original as many were passed down from one person to the next allowing for the intricate details to be muddied. Everything is written for a purpose, and we should take a similar approach with what is said and write it down for others to read.

"By the nineteenth century, many people firmly believed not only that every person's handwriting was unique, but that handwriting was 'an unfailing index of...character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge of...peculiarities of taste and sentiment.'" Baron, page 58

 I still think today that you can tell a lot about a person by their handwriting, especially men. I doubt that some of the other tells Baron mentioned are really legitimate today, such as potential spouses and employees. However, handwriting remains the most authentic expression of an individual through written communication.

We all learn to write at a very young age. In my experience, a person's handwriting evolves most significantly between kindergarten and the second grade, and after that period it really doesn't change much more. Sure, I do notice little tweaks in my letters from year to year but it's not enough to draw any conclusions from. The speed at which you write may alter the style some, but exterior time constraints do not comprise normal handwriting circumstances.

Handwriting is something that, once you have a feel for it, becomes solely yours. The irony is that everyone is essentially taught to write and formulate the same set of letters in the same fashion yet no two students develop identical handwriting. Individual handwriting can display a person's approach to life or their very nature in making decisions. Unfortunately, with nearly everything being typed on computers, individual expression through written communication is often limited by a set number of fonts, in some cases fewer than others, when dealing with strictly academic or business related work. I know my handwriting reflects a lot of my personality and I take pride in that. It's too bad people are losing sight of that.

Take out the trash

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"1.Your sentences are more concrete...2. Your sentences are more concise...3. The logic of your sentences is clearer...4.Your sentence tells a more coherent story." Williams 36-37

It's all about how it sounds. For once this is useful in writing English. Many of the examples Williams provided in chapter three presented to grammatically correct sentences, but based on the sound of each one was much more correct than the other. Too often in English what sounds correct is actually not. It's nice to finally be able to judge from ear rather than by eye and boring, tedious rule memorization.

The four "happy consequences" as Williams calls them, are and if not should be central goals of any successful journalist. Keeping the main character as the subject not only makes it easier on the audience to read (which is most critical) but also can cut down significantly on unnecessary wordiness, something newspapers have to be more and more conscious of these days. Too many people get caught up in trying to vary the order of their writing to give it added flavor and to break up potential monotony. This often leads to occasional sentences that stick out for both their lack of clarity and gross misplacement with the rest of the writing.

The same holds true in making the actions the verbs in your writing. Space is precious, and filling it up unnecessarily with choppy and awkward prepositions and articles in order to mix things up does way more harm than good. Each sentence needs to have a point and purpose. Anything useless will reflect poorly upon a writer regardless of profession. However, it is especially damaging for journalists and therefore must always be avoided.

I myself am not immune to such errors in my writing, though I've worked hard to limit them as much as possible. I most often write opaquely in academic papers when I try to get too fancy and technical with my writing. As I said above, I've become pretty good at limiting those instances of unnecessary wordiness. The best way I've found to avoid this lack in clarity is to reread what I just wrote. Editing will fix the technical errors in my writing but actually going through it again out loud will point out the awkward sentences. And knowing to keep these clarity rules is only good if you actually implement them in your own writing.
"Above all, the sense of primary orality survived in the behavior of the Greek tongue itself as it was being written down." Eric A. Havelock The Muse Learns to Write, page 94

As Havelock explains, there was great and at the time legitimate worry among the Greeks that the writing down of their oral communication would eventually result in the downfall of orality for the duration of their civilization. Today this obviously seems very silly, but it still offers some value to people in another time of communication transition. 

I think the above quote correlates very well with today's struggling newspaper industry regarding the shift from printed papers to digital avenues. A few major newspapers have disappeared from print entirely, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News. Obviously, this communication shift differs significantly from that of the Greeks in ancient times. However, many of the core principles of the shift and the after effects of it remain the same. 

Many think newspapers will not be able to endure because of money. The Internet offers a cheaper alternative to access the same news and that appeal is tough to fight. Similarly, the dawn of written language in Greek times reduced the demand for orators when much of what they said could now be transcribed and made available on a much larger scale. Sound familiar? But did that kill oratory and those in its profession altogether? No, far from it in fact. Today there are very few talented orators and the skill and demand for it are higher than ever. I'm not saying newspapers will follow that same track eventually, but we all know how much history likes to repeat itself.

The Wall Street Journal, widely regarded as one of, if not the best newspapers in the country. They're example looks to be the model for newspapers looking to successfully transition to the digital era. They seem to have it figured out there and others need to follow their lead, as difficult as it may be. The actual printing of newspapers will never die. There's always going to be a demand for hard copies to be available but that demand is never going to be anywhere near what it was even 20 years ago. But with the transition, they'll attain a sort of nostalgia to them that can provide a new avenue for success in the 21st century and beyond. Just look to the past and you may yet find the future.

the meaning of language

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"Language of any kind acquires meaning for the individual only as that meaning is shared by a community, even though the individual speaker is not addressing the community." Eric A. Havelock The Muse Learns to Write page 68

It's incredible how complex the seemingly unpretentious concept of language is, be it written or spoken. The evolution of both oral and written English communication is incredibly difficult to grasp on its own. What Havelock discusses predates that, along with just about every other language. It really is the stripped down, bare knuckled idea of just what language is and how it obtains substance.

I found the above quote the most impactful in the reading because it shed some light on how the idea of mass communication is kind of an oxymoron. Now I doubt this idea rests at the heart of Havelock's theories, but it definitely aroused my attention. It really is true that the words and language would be meaningless if those around us could not comprehend it. As far as the oxymoron is concerned, his community oriented stance on language having meaning supports that all effective communication has to serve the masses, because communication within oneself really lacks purpose.

 If I had devised the greatest fifteen minute speech of all time, one that would bring a sense of enlightenment and answers to all who understood its meaning, but I had to deliver that speech only to Portuguese speaking crowd in Brazil, what's the point? Sure that language could have tremendous meaning to myself, but that really isn't important because I'm not informing or aiding anyone else. And even if I may be speaking on the most trivial and unimportant topics, if the audience understands my language, our language, then there's some meaning.

 Words are powerless if there's nobody around to comprehend their meaning. I believe understanding this idea is crucial to understanding language and its importance.

When correctness is dead wrong

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"You can't predict correct usage by logic or general rule. You have to learn the rules one-by-one and accept the fact that most of them are arbitrary and idiosyncratic." Williams page 23

Can a brother get an amen? AMEN! I'm glad that my fictional audience agrees with me so forcefully. It's a welcome change to all the real life criticism. Especially when it comes from grammarians who enforce the most asinine and mostly unheard of rules in the English language. I was somewhat surprised to discover how many of the capricious rules that grammarians insist all good writers follow really aren't necessary at all. In case you didn't get where this is going already and you're a grammarian, now might be a good time to flip to the next web page.

The funny thing about it all, though, is that I catch myself time and time again thinking back to some of those rules in an effort to perfect my writing. Most often this only happens when I'm writing essays or any other academic piece where I know my writing needs to appear more intellectual and therefore magically better. I know I will never stop, too, because it has become almost second nature. Somebody put a gun to the part of my brain that makes me an occasional grammarian and blow it into a million tiny pieces. Seriously, you'd be doing me a HUGE favor. 

The use of such correctness in writing really depends on the venue. Being an aspiring journalist, I really don't think I have much need for the proper way to write but rather the simplest. Of course I have guidelines, often illogical, that I must follow, but those relate more to the style of the business. If splitting an infinitive or starting a sentence with the word and or ending a sentence with a preposition makes my writing clearer to most readers, then so be it. That's what I'm shooting for in this business. 

Perfection is a stupid and unachievable goal, especially when it comes to writing to appease the grammarians. But it's way more fun to continuously irritate them with my slightly improper, yet still perfectly acceptable style of writing the language we call English that I'm finalizing in this entry, irregardless of how much they and whom they are with. Stick that in your pipes and smoke it grammarians.
"this is how people are communicating: no paragraphs, no pronouns-the world condensed into a few upbeat slides, with seven or so words on a line, seven or so lines on a slide."

Although Ian Park's article is about nine years old now, it might have much more leverage and legitimacy in 2010, following two major evolutions of Microsoft PowerPoint in 2003 and 2007. PowerPoint today is exponentially more influential on all levels of society now than it was in 2001. I'm betting Ian Parker is in a mental hospital for the mentally unstable after seeing how much feed the PowerPoint beast has consumed. 

But all kidding aside, he does present some fair points, and he only uses 13 bullet points! I've seen hundreds of PowerPoint presentations dating back to junior high school. Teachers and professors seem to be relying on it more and more as the students become more accustomed to the software. As far as how it's effect on communication, however, Parker's generalizations aren't quite accurate.

At the college level, where PowerPoint seems to be the best thing since sliced bread for both professors and students alike, there are some glaring differences. For the most part, the presentations most professors use in their classes have a professional appearance and work as more of a visual aid for the professors rather than a reliant piece of their communication to their students. They use it more as it should be used. While it doesn't seem to reflect that strongly onto student presentations, it demonstrates that Parker's generalization is misplaced at least to a degree. From observation, it's clear that students do in fact rely to heavily on PowerPoint rather than it relying on them. Their design is often word for word of what they want to communicate and in doing so they do kill their communication skills. The bullet point design of seven lines and seven words actually works very well when properly employed because it serves as strictly a guide. When that happens, it encourages better communication with the audience and therefore helps communication rather than killing it.

Depending on its use, PowerPoint may do exactly what Parker suggests or does exactly the opposite. There is no middle ground. And on a somewhat relative note, did the expansion of PowerPoint create the texting phenomenon?

the irony of change

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"The law at work here is: once the word is technologized, there is no really effective way to criticize its condition without the aid of technology you are criticizing." (Ong 320)

If that isn't irony at its finest than I don't know what is. Ong made a great point that while Plato was critical of Greeks shifting from oral to written word, he made his point in writing, the idea of which he so despised. One might think somebody in ancient Greece would have pointed this out to him. How can a person criticize something while at the same time using that thing they are being critical of to criticize it? Sound redundant? That's because it is, and it also makes absolutely no sense. In any arena of debate, a person who took such a stance would be crucified and his or her argument torn apart.

Surely, then, this would not be taking place in today's transition from print to digital communication. And if it did, it would surely be pointed out and that individual's arguments nullified. Right? Unfortunately, we still see modern examples of this obvious irony everywhere and again it goes virtually unnoticed and unchallenged. So why is this? 

I believe that those who partake in such hypocritical criticisms have already realized the fruitlessness of their arguments. These people cling to their old forms of communication because they fear change and are quite comfortable with the status quo. At the same time, they have come to the realization that for them to spread and preserve their aging message they must use new technology to expand their audience. In their minds, this makes sense, and I cannot fault them for doing so. I completely understand where they are coming from. It probably would do little good to try and convince them of their own hypocrisy. But the irony and hypocrisy remains, and hell, maybe it can give the rest of us all a good laugh. 
It's amazing how underrated simplicity in communicating the English language is, especially in the print industries. Joseph Williams recognizes the importance of getting one's point across clearly and concisely. He also demonstrates that doing so is really not as complicated as many make it seem. I know several people who think if they use a big word somewhere in an essay or a story that they will appear smarter and more well versed. I myself have been guilty of it on several occasions. (I know all the big words I use, so I really am that smart.Apologies to the little ego plug there.) But really does any of that matter?

Wait for it....wait for it...super simple answer in three, two, one...NO!!! In fact, in many instances using such complex language can hurt the composition. Firstly, using unnecessarily ambiguous dialect can give off the impression that your writing is better than its audience, that your the snobby smart guy who's the best writer because you can fit the word 'sesquipedalian' into a sentence. (Don't bother to look that up, it's asinine). If you're really a good writer, than you have no use for such complex language. Simplicity allows for a broader audience and just makes you come across as not being a crude word for a donkey. 

The point of any writing is to communicate something to an audience. Having the ability to break down the complex to the simple makes you an excellent communicator. Nobody likes wordiness anyway. Just try picking up a Victorian era novel from England and you'll understand the value of simple and concise language.

"In all this, of course, is a great irony: we are likely to confuse others when we write about a subject that confuses us." Joseph Williams' Style; The Basics of Clarity and Grace 3rd edition, page 5

overlooked Roman contribution

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We can thank the Roman Empire for thousands of conceptual contributions they devised that we use and heavily rely on some 2,000 years later. Secretarial work is a good way down on that list. In fact, I was not aware it was on that little afore mentioned list. Yet secretaries so often get overlooked for the importance of their position. Sure things have changed dramatically in even the last ten years regarding secretaries. Nevertheless, it had to start somewhere. What strikes me the most from it is not just how important Rome determined written records was, but that they could actually create a job out of it, thereby allowing it to procreate exponentially. Somewhere along the line it had to become obvious that the idea of people being to remember all of their important information and history was not practical nor was it productive. Reading and writing, while important, weren't exactly thrilling concepts in Rome until the deviation of secretarial work. Its creation also led to several other areas of study being created. Essentially, the creation of secretarial positions allowed for greater education among the Roman masses and the spread of what is the most valuable commodity; knowledge.