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    Digging Deep Into Letters

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    h-spo How do you develop a closer relationship with language? It’s something I’m coming to understand as I read Roy Peter Clark’s excellent and accessible book, The Glamour of Grammar. In it, Clark notes, “For those living inside the language, each sound, each letter offers potential delight and meaning.”

    To drive home his point, Clark encourages readers to adopt a favorite letter; research and mind map words that begin with it; and write a short profile about it.

    My word profile is published below. If you’re feeling inspired, give the activity a try and let us know how your profile turns out.

    The Hubbub About H

    I didn’t expect the letter h to be so heated.

    In a mind map of h-words, a good-versus-evil theme emerges. There’s harmony and havoc; hero and heathen; help and hinder. Then there’s the ultimate clash of heaven and hell.

    Honestly, h has had a hectic history. At one point, the Romantic languages nearly heaved the letter out of existence. In the 13th Century, Old French—the very language where h’s “aitch” pronunciation derived from—omitted the letter from its language. Late Latin followed suit, silencing h. The letter reemerged in Middle English, starting with word spellings and eventually vocalizations. However, h is still silent in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

    H’s period of turmoil is evident in Modern English words with Latin roots such as honor and honest (silent h); humble (h is now vocalized); and able (derived from the Latin habile).  

    But there’s more. H is at the center of a pronunciation battle brewing in Great Britain. A growing number of Brits who pronounce h as “haitch” rather than “aitch” are catching flack from wordsmiths who deem the former as improper and inelegant. In fact, the BBC has been flooded by complaints about hosts using the “lower standard” of pronunciation. Oh the horror!

    All this hubbub for a letter that started as an Egyptian hieroglyphic for fence. No disrespect to the pharaohs, but I think H looks more like a rung on a ladder.

    But maybe I’m just being hostile.

    Now it’s your turn. Pick a letter, any letter. Do a little research. Then write a profile. I think you’ll feel a new kinship with a small but not so insignificant piece of our language. 

    —Tim Kemper

    A 1-2-3 for Writing Instructions

    Monday, April 27, 2015
    Confused drawer?

    I recently became a first-time homeowner, which has been quite the learning experience. Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Do-It-Yourself projects are not as simple as they look on HGTV.

    My lack of DIY acumen has resulted in an unhealthy amount of time browsing instructional Web sites, manuals, and videos. Along the way, I’ve encountered a surprising number of poorly written instructional materials. Common problems include unclear commands, undefined technical terms, missing steps, and mislabeled diagrams.

    These problems are particularly unfortunate for us novice DIYers, who rely on instructions and best-practice models to get jobs done. Poorly written instructions make it difficult to complete jobs safely and correctly, which compounds frustration.

    But it doesn’t have to be so. Here are some tips for making instructions easy to follow and understand.

    1. Write for beginners. If you’re writing to a general audience, imagine the person with the least knowledge of the subject, and write to that person. Keep in mind that this reader is likely apprehensive to get started. Hold his or her hand through the process using words and visuals.
    2. Outline and test your steps. Create a list of numbered steps, and test them out. Are they in the correct order?  Are additional actions needed to complete the task?  Remember, you are walking your readers through each step. Don’t assume they will take an action that is not explicitly stated.
    3. Write each step as a command. Command sentences get right to the point, providing readers with a clear directive of what to do next. These sentences use active verbs and an implied subject (you). So instead of saying “The seat should be attached to the chair back with four long bolts,” say “Attach the seat to the chair back using four long bolts.”
    4. Use simple language, and define technical terms. I recently worked my way through a set of instructions that included a step to “Inset the CHAMFERRED END of side stretchers into the holes of the chair’s back legs.” Besides the questionable command (should “inset” be “insert”?), what really bothered me was the all-caps treatment of the (misspelled) word chamfered. It’s not a term I was familiar with, but the all-caps treatment indicated that it was important. The instructions neither defined the word nor showed an illustration of its meaning.
      The lesson for instructional writers is this:  Even if you are fluent in the language of the task at hand, the language may be foreign to your readers. Avoid technical words and insider language. And when a technical term is necessary, define it through words or visuals. Also, take the time to proofread and spellcheck your work.
    5. Use pictures, illustrations, and labels wisely. Visual elements, when used correctly, are hugely beneficial. Make sure your visual elements are big enough to see and detailed enough to understand. This includes the list of materials needed to complete the task. Labels and directional graphics such as arrows are a few ways to improve the readability of visual elements.
    6. Observe someone using your instructions. Nothing serves like a real-life test. So ask a friend or colleague (someone unfamiliar with the subject) to put your instructions into practice while you watch—without intervening. Take notes about any points of hesitation or confusion, and revise your instructions for better clarity.

    In conclusion, remember that people turn to instructions when they don’t know how to do something. Your job is to provide the help they need, in the clearest, simplest terms. 

    —Tim Kemper

    Getting the Best of Product Reviews

    Monday, March 23, 2015
    20090506 Four Leaf Clover 018

    Often, the smallest things have the profoundest effect.

    For example, my own publishing career began with a simple four-paragraph product review.

    But that’s not the profoundest part. That little review also affected how I would evaluate quality from that day forward. To explain, let me introduce you to the four-paragraph review approach.

    Writing Reviews

    The magazine that bought my review had a strict four-paragraph approach:

    1. What’s it about? This paragraph introduces the subject and gives any essential background information.
    2. What’s good about it? (Find something.) If people care enough to write about something, they generally either love it or hate it. The “find something” directive makes reviewers focus on specifics instead of emotion. It makes “lovers” pinpoint details to justify their position, and it prevents “haters” from overlooking good features.
    3. What’s bad about it? (Find something.) Again, this directive makes sure reviewers give an honest appraisal. It makes “lovers” recognize shortcomings and makes “haters” articulate specific problems.
    4. What’s your final recommendation? This paragraph can be just a summary, but it might also suggest how the product may suit the needs of some people but not others.

    One more thing is worth noting about this four-paragraph approach: It’s just four paragraphs! Short and to-the-point, it’s especially good for online customer reviews.

    Reading Reviews

    I believe that customer reviews are one of the best results of the birth of the Internet. Having worked as a professional reviewer, having seen how often pros disagree, and coming from a background in literary criticism, I’ve come to view professional reviews as an art form, of little practical use. Customer reviews, though, are all about satisfaction: “Does it work?”

    As a potential buyer, here’s a strategy for getting the most out of customer reviews.

    1. First, check how many reviews exist. Dozens or hundreds are more valuable than just a few (which are too often shills). A product with many reviews has been used by many people.
    2. Next, read the worst reviews first (the one-star posts). Look for common complaints that might be a deal breaker for your purchase. Ignore poorly written reviews; too often people who don’t care enough to polish their public writing don’t think very deeply about it either.
    3. Then read the best reviews (the five- and four-star posts). Look for commonly praised features. From these, you can learn best ways to use the product.  
    4. Weighing the good, the bad, and your own needs, make your decision.

    Notice that I’ve ignored middling reviews (two- and three-star posts). They too often suffer from a lack of detail.

    And if a site allows feedback on reviews, be sure to flag the most useful ones. That encourages people to review more, and it helps future customers focus on the best ones. By the same token, if a review wastes your time, do everyone a favor and flag it as unhelpful.

    As a seller, here’s a strategy for getting the most out of your own customer reviews:

    • Read the best reviews (five- and four-star) to discover how you’re hitting the mark, and to glean ways to focus even better.
    • If you have time, skim the middling reviews for other recommendations.
    • Never argue the bad reviews (one- and two-star). Let their generally poor writing speak for itself.

    Concerning bad reviews, sometimes it helps to reach out to disgruntled customers privately. It’s possible they didn’t understand the product directions, or they may have a legitimate complaint. In either case, you can demonstrate that you care about their experience, and you might improve your product for future customers.

    When that happens, your former detractors may actually become new fans! Not only did you address their problem, they also have a feeling of having contributed to the product improvement.

    As a final word of advice, if you can’t appease a detractor, don’t contradict the person publicly. It’s better to appeal to fans to offer additional viewpoints. I know of one small publisher whose product went from a single, eviscerating one-star review to a four-star-plus best seller pretty much overnight through one simple tactic: Seeing the one-star review, the publisher sent a request to their customer mailing list, just asking for other honest opinions.

    A New Age of Buyers

    Word of mouth has always been the best advertising. With the new social-media aspect of online customer reviews, the power of word of mouth has only grown stronger. Use that power wisely, and you can get your own products the best exposure, make the best buying decisions as a customer, and help others make good choices as well.

    And who knows, posting a well-written review yourself might even be the first step in a new career!

    —Lester Smith

    A Review of Reviews

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015

    As a buyer, how do you use customer reviews? As a businessperson, how do you feel about reviews of your own products?

    Personally, as both a buyer and a businessperson, I love customer reviews. They strike me as more valuable overall than professional reviews (and I say that as someone who wrote professional reviews during the 1990s).

    The Value to a Customer

    As a customer, I tend to browse the 1-star reviews first. My goal is to pinpoint potential deal breakers before I buy. It’s easy enough to skip the horribly written reviews, and the off-target ones—those that complain about the mail, or a particular retailer’s policy, or anything else not related to the product itself. (Consider these “25 One-Star Reviews People Actually Left For Famous Tourist Attractions.”) If I find a common theme about a particular product feature, however, I can decide before buying whether that feature applies to my own intended use.

    Next, I browse the 5-star reviews. In this case, I’m hoping to discover the very best features of a product. Again, it’s fairly easy to skip the thoughtlessly gushing reviews (which, frankly, are sometimes the work of shills). If a common theme about a particular feature is repeated, however, that’s something to consider in relation to my own expected use of the product.

    Lastly, if I haven’t yet made a purchasing decision, I spend some time in the 4-star reviews. These tend to be more well-thought-out and better expressed than the 1- and 5-star reviews. They’re also often longer, requiring more time to consider.

    In my experience, the 2- and 3-star reviews are generally too non-committal to be of much value. They don’t often reveal anything damning, nor do they offer much helpful advice. Frankly, I’m not sure why people bother posting them.

    The Value to a Businessperson

    As a businessperson, I have pretty much the same feelings about reviews of products I’m involved in. Those 1-star reviews aren’t threatening, because they so often disqualify themselves from serious consideration by the quality of their writing. But if many of them point to a similar disappointment, that’s something worth considering in future production of the product. Similarly, the 5-star reviews are valuable only if they point out a common praise. The 4-star reviews tend to be what I learn most from, and any 2- and 3-star reviews are of dubious value.

    Let me add that I generally think a large body of reviews averaging 4 stars is more valid and convincing than just a few, glowing 5-star reviews. It’s better to have an honest debate among customers than just a few devoted fans.

    The Trouble with Professional Reviews

    Think about “At the Movies” with Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert and Roeper. How often did these reviewers agree? Sure, watching them could be entertaining, but how much did it affect your choice of films to view?

    Again, speaking as a former professional critic, I’d suggest that these sorts of reviews are more concerned with art than pragmatism. Professional reviewers tend to be people with strong opinions about a subject. Those opinions often color their reviews, leading them to write about how they wish something had been, rather than actually evaluating the thing as it is. As Mignon McLaughlin put it, in The Neurotic's Notebook, “A critic can only review the book he has read, not the one which the writer wrote.”

    This is why even on a review site like CNET, I’m prone to weigh the “User Reviews” more heavily than the “Editors’ Take.” Frankly, users spend more time with a product than professionals can, which means they learn its “ins and outs” more thoroughly.

    Next Up, How to Write a Review

    The one advantage professional reviewers have over the average customer is writing experience. That need not be a problem for customer reviewers, however. Watch for our next blog post, in which we lay out a tried-and-true formula for quickly putting together your own most helpful product reviews.

    —Lester Smith

    Writing for Change

    Wednesday, December 31, 2014
    To Do's

    One of the best things about human beings is their capacity for change.

    Sometimes change comes dramatically, from a sudden insight, an “Aha” moment that gives everything after a totally different perspective.

    Sometimes it comes slowly, laboriously, the intentional development of a new habit and just as intentional avoidance of an old one.

    As a writer, I encounter something similar to both pretty much daily: whether it’s in a sudden inspiration that rushes me to the keyboard to get an idea down while the vision is fresh, or the slow accumulation of details to flesh out a chapter, and then another, and another, until the whole picture comes into focus.

    But writing can be more than a way of simply recording change. It can be a powerful tool for effecting change. For example, I recall facing a few decisions in college so tough that only a pro-and-con list could see me through. As I jotted down details in each column, the decision took shape, until the conclusion seemed inevitable. By the same token, sometimes writing a journal entry, or a letter to a friend (even if it is never sent), brings things into focus so that we can move forward.

    In business, of course, we write reports and plans and analyses, not merely to defend a course of action, but more importantly to decide on one. Business writing brings clarity and focus to our endeavors.

    At this time of year, it is traditional to make a list of resolutions for the coming months. I encourage you to write your resolutions down. Then prioritize them. And as you accomplish each in the coming year, check it off. Treat your resolutions as a to-do list (or even as a bucket list), and they’re more likely to be achieved.

    Let the power of your writing, even in this simple way, help you take advantage of our shared human capacity for change.

    Best wishes in the coming year.

    —Lester Smith