How to get attention? Whisper.

We have developed the collective bad habit of overstating our points.  The World Series really isn’t global… although the “North American Series With a Lot of Players from the Caribbean and Central America” is a bit wordy.  We tells one friend that our other friend just said the meanest thing ever.  Our newscasters are sure that the pile-up on I95 is the worst in history. The weather channel pedals the coldest March, the hottest July, the wettest September. Our boss complains that the conference was the biggest waste of time imaginable. Our ratio of extreme experiences to regular life has shot through the extremely high roof.

Language alert: when everything is extreme, nothing is extreme. Overstatement dilutes whatever surrounds it, erases the power of superlatives when we need them, and distracts the reader.

When everyone around you is talking loudly, how do you get attention?  You whisper. As writers, we get more attention when we tell our stories straight, and save the overstatements for the situations when they really aren’t overstatements.

In Why Architecture Matters, (Yale University Press, 2009), the critic Paul Goldberger describes Grand Central Terminal in all its wonderful and marvelous glory without using one superlative about the station, and Grand Central becomes even more important because of the restraint:

To me, the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal is a kind of public square for New York, a railroad’s gift to the city that is nearly a century old and, if anything, more inviting than ever. Here, Beaux-Arts architecture did what it did best, which was to use the traditional elements of classical and Renaissance architecture to create beautiful and noble public places. Grand Central is a vestibule to the city; here great space is used both to allow vast numbers of people to move through easily and also to enhance the ritual of arriving and leaving the city by housing it with appropriate ceremony. Grand Central is the city’s symbolic front door, and it feels very different from, say, the Port Authority Bus Terminal or the current version of Pennsylvania Station, which is little more than a glorified subway station.  When you come into the city through Grand Central, you feel from the moment that you step off the train that you are in a place that is capable of stirring your soul. You have arrived, and it is this extraordinary space that tells you so.

Mr. Goldberger doesn’t tell us that he thinks Grand Central is the greatest building ever, or the greatest building he’s seen in New York; he lets us walk through his construct of a public square to a public place to a vestibule to a front door to our disembarking selves. Goldberger lets us experience the terminal’s greatest for ourselves, and we end up where he does: concluding that Grand Central is a most amazing public structure ever.

Edit out the overstatements, and you will have restored a tool to your writer’s tool kit: the hammer of shock and awe, to be used sparingly and effectively.  The rest of time, remember to whisper.

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Exaggeration in the age of reality TV

Televised courting, marriage, childbirth, and rehab threaten to turn the word “mystery” into an archaic word our children will have to look up in a dictionary. In an age without mystery, what role does exaggeration play in a writer’s toolkit?

Exaggeration is one of the best style tools for giving texture to our thoughts.  Bland, smooth writing is like baby food – provides sustenance, but not an adult choice. Who would want a meal without crunch, crackle, pop? Exaggeration, when used as a condiment or spice, makes our descriptions the stuff of fine dining.

David Brooks, in his break-out Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, employs exaggeration to capture the new elite’s relationship with kitchens with such mastery that no reader will approach a kitchen in the same way again:

     And when it comes to a room as utilitarian as the kitchen, the sky’s the limit.  Up until the Bobos came along, the kitchen was a reviled part of the house.  The 19th-century architect Calvert Vaux, for example, was dismayed at people who would eat in the kitchen.  “This habit marks the low state of civilization,” he remarked….But today in the age of Bobo reconciliation, everybody is back in the kitchen, albeit on his or her own terms.  Indeed, in today’s educated-class homes, the kitchen has become the symbol of domestic bliss, the way the hearth used to be for the bourgeoisie.

That’s why when you walk into a newly renovated upscale home owned by nice, caring people, you will likely find a kitchen so large it puts you in mind of an aircraft hangar with plumbing.  The perimeter walls of the old kitchen will have been obliterated, and the new kitchen will have swallowed up several adjacent rooms, just as the old Soviet Union used to do with its neighbors.  It’s hard to tell where one of today’s mega-kitchen ends.  You think you see the far wall of some distant great room shimmering in the distance, but it could be a mirage reflected off the acres and acres of Corian countertop.  And then when you turn into the pantry, you observe that it is larger than the entire apartment the owner lived in while in graduate school.

Kitchens this big require strategizing. The architects brag about how brilliantly they have designed their kitchens into “work triangles” to minimize the number of steps between, say, stove, dishwasher, and sink. In the old kitchens you didn’t need work triangles because taking steps was not a kitchen activity. You just turned around, and whatever you need, there it was. But today’s infinite kitchens have lunch counters and stools and built-in televisions and bookshelves and computer areas and probably little “You Are Here” maps for guests who get lost on their way to the drink station….

Presiding over the nearby quadrants of the kitchen will be the refrigeration complex.  The central theme of this section is that freezing isn’t cold enough; the machinery should be able to reach temperatures approaching absolute zero, at which all molecular motion stops.  The refrigerator itself should be the size of a minivan stood on one end.  It should have at least two doors, one for the freezer section and one for the in-law suite, in case you want to rent out rooms inside.  In addition, there should be through-the-door deliver systems for water (carbon filtered), ice (cubes, crushed, or alphabet style to help the toddlers with their letter recognition), and perhaps assorted microbrews.  There should be gallon door bins, spillproof split shelves, sealed snack pans, full extension slides, and scratchproof bin windows, and the front doors should not be white, like those regular refrigerators they sell at Sears, but stainless steel – the texture of culinary machismo.

David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, Touchstone, 2000

Exaggeration not only helps paint a picture: we then can’t get the image out of our mind…long after those reality TV moments will have gone in one side of our brain and out the other. And that’s no exaggeration!

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Dashes — and semi-colons; and colons: oh my!

There is nothing wrong with simple sentences: subject and action and object. Hemingway laid miles of this track, and the trains ran without a hitch.  For the rest of us, a dash of  dashes, semi-colons, and colons adds pleasing texture to our paragraphs.

Meals with all-pureed foods are boring; so is a paragraph without punctuational variety. Could our lists be tastier when introduced with a colon, and with the items separated by a semi-colon? Could our opinions gain some punch introduced with a dash? Yes, and we shouldn’t skip over them: we owe our readers something more than hospital fare.

In the 24 February 2013 New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh’s analysis of the success of the “Die Hard” movie franchise could have been mass market as its topic. His writing makes the piece something special, not only with its clever insights, but with its smart use of dashed, semi-colons, and colons:

The “Die Hard” films offer a different promise: not that everything will go right, but that there’s always hope that something will go wrong. Most often, that something is John McClane. “Just a fly in the ointment,” as he describes himself. “The monkey in the wrench.” His adversaries are consistently personifications of bloodless efficiently. They’re not the watch-the-world-burners like the Joker, but a lock-step group of automatons — accented terrorist, rogue American special-ops solders or computer hackers — who roll in wordlessly to enact some implausibly elaborate scheme: snipping wires, setting explosives, plugging in passwords, popping open vaults, and shooting people using silencers. McClane, ultimately, is the meddlesome kid who messes up their careful plans. He owes less to Marshal Dillon than he does to Scooby-Doo.

Our emails have devolved to one-sentence paragraphs. This doesn’t have to carry over into the rest of our communication.  Let’s try adding a dash, semi-colon, or colon this week to our writing; our readers will thank us for the crunch.

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Bite-sized nuggets

When the writing is coming too slowly, and the interruptions are coming too loudly, the answer is to write a bite-sized nugget — a paragraph, a few sentences, a closing without an opening, an opening without an ending.

Will you use this morsel?  Maybe.  Will it energize you and renew your self-confidence? Absolutely.

Anne Lamott, as she reflects on writing in Bird by Bird, quotes E. L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Writing nuggets applies to everything from a novel to a cover letter to a shopping list.  Start small, declare victory, then step out again with a lighter step.

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When an Interviewee Is [sic]

The comment [sic] means “thus” in Latin, short for “thus it was written” (sic erat scriptum)

What it really means is that the writer is deliberately including bad grammar, or a wrong word, or some sort of confusion on the part of an interviewww.  The writer is winking at us, letting us in on the little secret that the quote’s content or communication is flawed.  With the one little word, [sic], we are shown the subject’s true colors (and sometimes the writer’s true snarkiness.)

Our current Vice President, Mr. Joe Biden, is the king of gaffes, so the press has reacquainted itself with [sic]. This week’s gaffe was a classic: Mr. Biden gave himself a promotion at the Iowa State Society inauguration ball, saying “I’m proud to be President [sic] of the United States.”

Now that’s [sic]!




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How to Get Ideas To RSVP

Writing, like designing, happens only when we start putting words (or sketches) on paper.  Our job isn’t to find the ideas, but make ourselves available to welcome ideas as they arrive.  Ideas are waiting for an invitation, and we extend that invitation only as we start to write.  The act of writing is how we let ideas know where the party is, when it starts, and what to wear.

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Capturing Lighting with Words

The quality of the lighting in an interior space makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary design.  When we are describing a space, we need to light it well, too.

Notice how the masterful Tom Wolfe lights this library in his novel, A Man in Full: he emphasizes the contrast between the dark wood and the rest of the room, he highlights objects that reflect light (silver and glass), and he reveals the space gradually, just as our eyes would adjust slowly to the dark.  A few details is all it takes to light the space for us, but the choice of those details is what makes a master.

The library was paneled in a dark wood, mahogany or perhaps walnut, and lined with shelves that seemed to contain far more silver bowls, trophies, and pieces of blown-glass sculpture than books. The combination of the dark wood, the soft light, and the gleaming objets was such that at first Roger Too White failed to notice the figure sprawled back on a tufted leather sofa. 


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Wisdom from Stephen King

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time to write.”  Hey, the man has fifty (!) books on the worldwide bestseller list…seems like a good idea to listen to Mr. King’s writing tips.

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