Steven Pinker: Tips on Writing with Style


Writing is nothing like speaking. People’s brains are wired to produce speech and the process of language acquisition starts immediately after the baby is born. All it takes is exposure to linguistic input. From babbling to fully articulated sentences, we can count on a time span of some four or five years. It’s an effortless and innate ability. An instinct. Writing, on the other hand, is a recent invention in the history of the species. It requires much harder work. It’s a learned skill; it takes more time to master and can be seriously improved through life if you set your mind to it. It will never be complete, though.

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In his brilliant new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker does not aim at beginners. He takes for granted that you can already produce a decent piece of writing and are willing to hone your skills. He claims he will help you do that not by providing a reference guide which you can look up whenever you have a question about punctuation, spelling or grammar. Pinker’s intent is to make the reader reflect on how to improve his writing style.

And why would you want to do that? He comes up with three reasons a writer of any kind – although he focuses on non-fictional texts in the examples he provides – would wish to develop his writing skills:

  1. To achieve clarity (you can make the meaning of your message more rigorous, unambiguous, easier to grasp. Your written instructions, for example, will become less dangerous in certain contexts, if you enhance your style);
  2. To gain trust (readers rely on writers who present themselves as someone who knows his language, its nuances and limitations);
  3. To convey beauty (writing and reading are two of the greatest pleasures of a civilized person: expressing yourself with more precise words, being able to make use of a tad of poetry in your descriptions, coming up with original and impactful metaphors will enchant your reader).

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To accomplish these objectives, Pinker advocates the adoption of what he calls classic style, which replicates the easiness and directness of a conversation and makes the reader see the world as if watching a movie. Classic style avoids abstractions by using examples and concrete language. It shows instances of the phenomena being analyzed, making it as tangible as possible for the reader. Classic style maintains that the purpose of writing is “presentation and its motive is disinterested truth.”

Classic style involves the cooperation of the reader, who will try to fill in the blanks and work to understand what the writer wishes to convey. The reader will contribute his knowledge of the world to complement what the writer is saying, so the latter won’t need to over-contextualize the point he’s trying to get across.‘’Classic writing…makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

In addition to classic style, another tenet of Pinker’s theory of good writing is that authors need to balance prescriptive norms and descriptive uses of the language. Only by doing that a writer will sound sophisticated, attentive, intelligible to a larger audience, and, yet, avoid pomposity, fundamentalism and the danger of becoming a stickler for unreasonable norms dictated by orthodox stylistic guides.

What are prescriptive norms? These are traditional and condoned ways of expressing oneself in a language. It’s a set of rules that any good writer must know and, possibly, follow. However, the writer must be aware that these rules were not created by an omnipotent guardian who concocted these norms and keeps them in an inexpugnable fortress. Rules are a product of what past writers and (usually) educated people handed down to the newer generations. But language is in constant evolution, and often, creative writers will bend the rules to achieve specific effects or to avoid misinterpretations that were not taken into consideration before.

Descriptive linguistics, contrastively, deals with how people actually write and speak in real life in a determined place at a certain moment in time. Language is a dynamic and shape-shifting organism. It’s alive. It changes to accommodate new realities and ideas. It cannot and will not be straitjacketed to please the inflexibility of purists.

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Nevertheless, writing cannot be a free for all, where anything goes. Sense is the key word. A consultation of the experts – recognized and trusted writes of present and past, people who express themselves with clarity and beauty – needs to take place. Established rules must be taken into consideration and reflected upon. A consensus is necessary. Pinker’s suggestion of replacing “dogma about usage with reason and evidence” nails the solution to the dilemma.

Therefore, good writers, according to Pinker, are the ones who pay attention and look up. They learn, either systematically or through reading good authors, what are the best ways to express oneself. However, they will not hesitate to bend those rules, coin words, or challenge the linguistic status quo, if they feel this is needed to convey an original thought.

These principles are, in summary, what Steven Pinker champions in his elegant book. However, I will not have time to discuss in this blog post how he does that. I won’t be able to cover his humor, the irony and the encyclopedic knowledge of the English language he imparts in this essential manual. Neither will I mention the delightful examples he picks to make his points; to say nothing of the fact, that, contrary to the objective he stated in the introduction to the book, it will definitely work as a helpful reference guide for most readers.

A must-read for writers or anybody who is either interested in English or works with it (teachers, language students, editors, marketers, academics…), The Sense of Style is a mandatory item in your library.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

OUR BLOG “LINGUAGEM” HAS HAD A GREAT FIRST YEAR!


HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE.

Please find below some official stats sent by wordpress.com on the blog LINGUAGEM. We’ve had a great first year. Thanks for the support and we will back stronger than ever in 2015.

BLOG LINGUAGEM: 2014 official stats

BLOG LINGUAGEM: 2014 official stats

 

 

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Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Five Most Common Misconceptions About Writing


Writing is today more fashionable than it has been in a long time. Perhaps it’s at the peak of its importance ever, with all the blogs, messages, emails and tweets swamping our computer, tablet and smart phone screens every second of the day. Of course, most of the time it’s bad or unclear writing. But everyone is doing it one way or another, and job opportunities are opening up for those who do it well.

Content is the key word in the workplace today. Especially if you are in sales & marketing. The buyer has all the power today and they control when, how and where they will make their next purchase. In this context, writing can be a great asset in educating and persuading prospects, making them see you as the expert, or thought leader in your field. Writing great content and making it available will help you develop a relationship with your potential customers, who will definitely lean towards your offer when the time is right.

Saint Jerome Writing (detail) by Caravaggio

Saint Jerome Writing (detail) by Caravaggio

As a consequence of its importance, the Internet is full of advice about effective writing, how to put blogs together, the dos and don’ts and best practices of publishing anything. By all means, read all you can, as there is a lot of useful information online. Beware, however, of some of the most common misconceptions about writing: in general most of them were acquired or developed at school and academic settings rather than on the Internet. Here are five of the most common:

1. Writing is about inspiration and waiting for the muse to come down and sit on your keyboard. Well, I’m afraid there’s not enough room for the muse to relax and spread out on such a small space. Also, deadlines have a weird way of not accommodating the muse’s busy schedule, so do not wait to get started. Writing is not necessarily what Hemingway warned us against in his famous quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Make it more active: brainstorm ideas, do some research, check out what is trending online, use automatic topic generators on the Internet, and do not delay. Start the process as soon as you can,

 2. Writing comes out as the masterpiece you usually read in the printed copy of good magazines, newspapers and books. Well, the final draft is not easy to get to. That’s what you see published. But anyone can get the process started and refine it until you achieve a satisfactory result. The saying writing is rewriting, or writing is more about transpiration than inspiration are indeed true. Once you spill out your first ideas and get them more or less outlined on the page, you will start the process of polishing them. And that is the hard part. This will take time, effort and immense patience.

3You cannot self-edit. If we are not talking about your PhD thesis or your fiction masterpiece, do not believe you need a team of copyeditors, researchers and proofreaders ready to work for you. They are expensive and hardly available in enough numbers even for big publishing companies nowadays. So, unless you can count on close friends to help you out with it (remember you can always return the favor), you must learn tactics for self-editing. Do not hesitate to count on every piece of technology available to help you with the task: spell checkers, grammar checkers, dropdown thesaurus, online dictionaries, you name it. There are a lot of very useful tools out there. Read your drafts as many times as you can and carry on refining them. There will be a moment when you’ll get so fed up with reading your piece you will want to throw up. That’s when you take a serious break. I’m not talking about the proverbial coffee time (you have probably been drinking coffee nonstop throughout the whole process anyway). Just abandon your text for a couple of days (I hope you can afford to do that. Factor in those necessary breaks when you plan your timetable to meet the deadline). Next time you get back to the text, you will see it with fresh eyes, and give it the final touches as a Steven Pinker would.

4. Sophisticated writing is good writing. Write as you speak. Content that will help you sell is content that’s simple enough for the majority of readers to understand. So drop the long words and complex sentences. The golden rule of elegance is less is more. Apply this to your writing: precision and simplicity of vocabulary, clarity of ideas, avoidance of overuse of the passive voice, and keeping to what is essential are the tactics that will make you win the reader over. As you read and reread your text, try to leave out everything that is superfluous or redundant. Cut, cut, cut.

5. Not everyone can write. You are write (sorry: right) to think so, if you are using Oscar Wilde or Hemingway as your standard. Artistic and creative writing are not for everyone. It does not need to be for you. But most people can learn to develop and communicate clear, authoritative and persuasive ideas in writing. It takes practice, though. All the content marketing gurus agree on this single point: you need to write everyday if you are in the business. The blog post you will write as soon as you finish reading this text will sound a hundred times better than the one you wrote around the same time last year. They will be both there on the Internet: just read and compare them. You will have improved. So keep working at it and surprise yourself month after month at how much better you are becoming. Good luck!

Would you like to share with us any advice on writing? Please do not hesitate to do so on the comments section of this blog. You might as well rate us so we can improve.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Should you have a blog as a marketer?


“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

As we all bloggers know, Hemingway did nail the writing process in his quote above. Yes, it’s hard; yes, it’s time-consuming; no, it’s never right the first time around. Writing is rewriting. For a 1000-word blog post, I would say the average blogger would write at least 10 drafts before he is reasonably satisfied with the result. He is lucky if he has an editor to help with the polishing, but that is not usually the case.

However, in this day and age of content marketing, you would be crazy as a marketer if you did not sit down at least once a week to create or repurpose some  written content to post on the Internet. Let me highlight in this post the features of good blog posts and how your business could benefit from them.

Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror by Bacon, Francis, 1976

Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror by Bacon, Francis, 1976

1. Search engine optimization: provided you offer useful and original content, employing the relevant key words, blogging will help your business show up on the SERPs (search engine results pages) of your prospective clients. I don’t know many people today who will not go to Google at some point during the buying cycle to do a search before actually purchasing a product or service. So, to be available, to show up, it will help to have a carefully SEOed (search engine optimized) blog to pop up on the first page.

2. Answer your customers questions: the buying process – the cycle your prospects go through before committing to a purchase –  consists of the the following phases: first, the prospect needs to identify a need or problem; second, they will try to learn about possible solutions; third, they will start shopping for the ideal solution; afterwards, when they are ready, they will look for directions to actually buy it (online or offline); finally, when they start using the product, they might have problems or questions about it, so you need to offer them prompt customer service. Your blog needs to account for each one of these phases and provide the appropriate answers to help them at the stage they are, moving them along the sales funnel. It takes close communication between Marketing, Sales and Customer Service to identify the customers most frequently asked questions and issues, and try to solve them through your blog content. So it’s time to cooperate (there’s no need to tell me how hard this can be, but it’s worth trying): salespeople and customer service professionals need to develop their marketing skills, while marketers should learn more about the customers from sales and customer service so they can provide qualified leads.

3. Thought leadership: by covering content that speaks to the different needs of your customers at the different stages of the buying process you will soon develop a reputation of an expert in the field. Even if you don’t get conversions in terms of sales at the first moment, your customers will grow to trust your opinions and respect your points of view. When the time comes for them to make a buying decision, who do you think they will turn to?

4. Style: your blog is not supposed to be a work of art if you are a marketer. So write as simply and elegantly as possible, as if you were actually “talking” to the prospect. A marketer’s blog is not a piece of literature, so tone down your message, and be objective and direct. Of course it would help to be aware of the reading level of your audience, but “according to many reports (including the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics’ 1992 Adult Literacy survey), the average reading level is the 7th or 8th grade. Combine that with reports of increasingly low-attention spans of Internet users who require even milder language and you’re looking at a reading level of the 6th or 7th grade”  (http://blog.ezinearticles.com/2013/10/ezinearticles-asks-what-reading-level-should-you-target.html) . If you really wish to fine tune your text’s level of difficulty, there are some tools on the Internet (try the Readability Test Tool, for example, http://read-able.com) that will allow you to measure it.

5. The title: the importance of a catchy title to crown your blog post cannot be underestimated. This is the first impression you will make on the reader, and you only have a couple of seconds to entice them. So think carefully about it. Putting yourself in the shoes of a journalist may help, after all, this is your headline. Research says that questions are a good way to go, as they tease the reader into looking for the answer in the text.

6. Promoting and Repurposing: to make the most of all the effort you put into writing your piece, promoting your blog is a must. Use your social media channels with this objective. Putting links to your blog post repeatedly, however,  may not be the solution (although you’ll have to do it occasionally). Be careful not to make your audience feel spammed. Another solution is to repurpose your content and distribute it in different formats to suit the different social media channels: write a summary of the content as an image (for Instagram); use the photos you put in your blog post with a link to it (Instagram, Facebook); write a headline for your blog with a link to it (Twitter); turn it into an infographics poster (Pinterest); use the main points for a slide presentation (slideshare), etc.

As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Some people say they blog everyday so they can improve.  Research indicates that to be excellent at a skill you need to have spent at least 10,000 hours at it (read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”  for a deeper explanation on this). Maybe you don’t have that  amount of time available anymore, but I would say it’s never too late to get started. What you can’t afford to do as a marketer is NOT to have a blog. How about starting today?

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

How can content marketing help your business?


Content marketing is a digital strategy that consists of creating and publishing a range of alluring pieces of content and distributing them freely on the Internet to get the participation of your target audience in a conversation with you. Its objective is multidimensional: to entice your clients and goad them into interacting with you (maybe by signing up to a newsletter or blog); to build your image as a thought leader, that is, to get them to trust you as a genuine expert and problem-solver in your industry; to bring your audience closer and closer to you by raising their interest and engagement; and to finally do business with them.

These steps are generally referred to as the sales funnel: leading a number of people through progressive stages towards your business goal, which is hopefully a sell that represents a win-win situation for both parties involved. Content marketing is a form of inbound marketing, therefore, which means that, instead of interrupting your prospect through broadcasting, you start a conversation using a topic they like to talk about, and then attract them to you for more content that will hopefully inform, entertain or teach them something useful. The best metaphor is meeting guests at a cocktail party and then inviting them to a more serious conversation in your office at a later date.

 

Image-The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir, Pierre-Auguste1

The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir, Pierre-Auguste

 

Most of the readers of this blog are in the language business. They are either school owners and teachers, or publishers and consultants. You are, therefore, in the best position to exercise this form of strategy we call content marketing, as you deal with language itself:  a vehicle to convey and discuss all forms of different content, as long as they are of interest to your audience. We are all working more and more towards niches, the market is fragmented and we are all discussing how to best make use of the so-called long tail, reaching very specific audiences by catering to their needs.

Another interesting characteristic of these times is that the lines between sales, marketing and customer service are blurring, as most businesses are directing their customers towards the internet for promotion, sales and help. Salespeople and Customer Service professionals are becoming high-level consultants, and it will soon become a privilege for a client to receive a real salesperson at their office to do business with.

So, in all departments of our companies, we should be producing digital content to communicate with the clients about our respective areas of expertise and skills. How do you produce content that can be used to build a relationship with your audience, solidify your position as a thought leader, gain their trust and finally SELL your goods and services to them?

I will outline a number of steps that will help you get started:

Define your buying persona: who is your typical client? How old is she?  Where does she work? What kind of content would she be interested in?  How does she use the Internet? Remember: the tendency is to sell to a niche, so try creating a realistic persona for each specific niche you want to reach.

Decide where you targeting audience is: this question was partially answered in the definition of your buying persona, but now let’s dig deeper. What is the best social media channel to find the people you are trying to sell to? This will be best done through testing and measuring. It will be hard to know beforehand what channels will provide the most response, conversion and sales rates, as the clients go down the sales funnel we mentioned before.  Start with the major ones: Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram. Then follow the metrics and start refining your strategy.

Create a content strategy and a calendar: breakdown your content output in the following way: 40% of it should be general interest content loosely linked to the product or service you sell. If you are a language school, for example, write or post images about interesting places, different cultures, national festivals, etc. Then the next 30% of  your content should be directly connected to your product or service, although you are not selling it in a hard way yet (still using the example of a language school: give tips on learning strategies, good books to read, meaning of slang used in TV shows and films, interesting facts and figures about languages, quizzes, etc). Another 20% should consist of direct offers to sign up to specific communications, take advantage of promotions, give away coupons, etc., aimed at those who are already at the stage of making a firmer commitment to you. Finally, get your customer service team to use the remaining 10% to help your customer deal with post-sales problems and issues, by harnessing a frequently asked question page or producing how-to videos.

Assign different people in your marketing, sales and customer service teams to produce the content they can: ask your team what skills they have and what kind of content they would feel comfortable producing. Are they good writers? Do they make videos in their spare time? Are they weekend photographers? Illustrators? Would they like to use their beautiful voices to read a scripted podcast? Of course, if you are lucky, you may count on a professional design department, but these are becoming harder to budget for. Fortunately, the apps available on the Internet are making this facet of the job accessible to many of us who lack sophisticated designer skills. Everybody should be expected to contribute.

Measure, measure, measure: and adapt your content strategy accordingly. Don’t obsess about absolute metrics in your measuring process, as different platforms will give you different figures for a number of reasons: focus on trends over time and try to improve your KPIs (key performance indicators, as discussed and approved by your senior management) over time.

There is a lot more to say about content marketing. We will continue the conversation in future posts. For now, please share your ideas and comments with us in the blog.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

Interviewing Philip Roth – the movie


Based on some of my previous posts on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, many of you will already know that Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers. At 81, he is considered by many the greatest living American writer. I can’t get enough of his books. They usually investigate the depths of the human soul, are packed with painful truths, but also convey a dark sense of humor, which makes them irresistible.

Although I have already reread many of his novels, the good news is he’s so prolific that I haven’t been able to cover the whole list yet. So there is a lot to look forward to. I don’t think I will ever have an opportunity to talk to him in person, as he is very reclusive and private. And, to be quite honest, I would not like that to happen, as I want to preserve the idealized image I have of him – so I imagined what an interview with him would be like. His answers are known quotes.