Developing an ear for good language

Part of becoming a good writer is developing an ear for good syntax and rhythm. The way words are put together really does determine the effect they have on the reader. As with most things, a person who wants to get better at something finds ways to hang around those who are already the best in that particular field. The same is true with writing good literature. Arthur Plotnik, in his great little book, The Elements of Editing, puts it this way:

“A mastery of good syntax–how words are strung together well–can come in only two ways: by spending the first twenty-five years of one’s life in a drawing room with E. B. White, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bowen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, John Fowles, Langston Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, James Baldwin, and John Updike–or by reading their works and those of other writers whose choice of words and word arrangement establishes our standards of literate communication.

“An ingrained ear for language comes from reading good literature and balances the domestic babble, street talk, advertising drivel, and work jargon ravaging our brains.”

If you want to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas to your reader, you must have an ability to use language. If you want to develop “an ingrained ear for language” take the time to read the greats, the literary standard-bearers of our day. Someway, somehow that appreciation for language and the power of words will rub off and begin to make a difference in the way you communicate the things that matter to you.

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The nonprofit trap: More is more, so here’s even more

It is a cold reality that most nonprofit organizations feel a relentless pressure to raise funds. And when they’re not raising funds, they’re pursuing donations. Having worked in the nonprofit world for over twenty-five years, I have personally felt that pressure and all that is included in the perpetual need for finances and sufficient cashflow.

Unfortunately many nonprofits allow the pressure to dictate their communication processes. They feel that they may not get another chance with a prospective donor, so they want to get as much information in as they possibly can. Every newsletter is crammed full of as many stories or testimonials as is humanly possible. Web pages contain events, appeals, thanks, hopes, goals, reports, staff updates, biographical sketches, requests for volunteers, and anything else the organization wants to communicate to each reader. And that is frequently all on the same page!

Quite frankly, it’s far too easy for the reader, who is also the prospective donor, to get buried under the avalanche of information. The organization’s mission, purpose, and philosophy can easily get washed away in the flood of details, and the reader leaves not really knowing what the organization is hoping to accomplish … or why.

The best thing a nonprofit can do in communicating its purpose and process is to remember that most readers are initially interested in the “big picture”–the why and the how. The who, what, and when are important, but no internet browser wants ten minutes’ worth of reading on every page of a website.

Any nonprofit organization can improve its communications and effectiveness by reducing the text, focusing on its key points, and drawing the reader into its vision and purpose. This will create an interest that may often turn into action.

More isn’t always more; sometimes it’s just too much. It’s better to avoid the trap.

Would you invite this guy to your dinner party?

Language seems to be in a constant state of decline lately. It’s more about communicating at the most basic level instead of actually conveying meaning with a purpose. Of course, texting often becomes communication in its rawest form. C U l8r kind of says it all, or not much actually.

Since much of communication is driven by emotion, our words often spew forth what we may be feeling, but many times they don’t really give the listener or reader much to go on. For instance, we are often content with a derogatory comment like, “That guy is such a jerk.” Or, “He is a complete waste of space.” Now those do convey a definite opinion or sentiment, but they don’t really convey the fullness of how we view that waste of space jerk.

Compare this description by Gustave Flaubert from his classic work, Madame Bovary. This is a description of Charles Bovary, the Madame’s husband: “Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and it was traversed by a steady stream of the most commonplace ideas, all wearing the usual garb and appealing to neither the emotions, the sense of humor nor the imagination.” Doesn’t that impact you much more forcefully than, “He is so lame!”? Either way, “Note to self: Don’t invite this guy to the next dinner party.”

Word pictures are definitely on the decline, but the ability to create an image in the mind of another is still one of the primary keys to great communication. From Homer to Jesus to Tolstoy to James Agee, the ability to paint a picture with words has always been one of the most effective ways of instilling thoughts, principles, and ideas in the heart or mind of someone else. This is one of the primary ways we help our readers or listeners “see” what we’re trying to say.

Make the effort and read the greats. You’ll see word pictures everywhere. There is no better way to learn effective communication than to be communicated to by the best.

What I’m doing here … and why it might possibly matter

I am mesmerized by the art of communication. “How did what I just said become what they think they heard?” If perception is reality, most of us are in heaps of trouble heaps of the time.

The truth is most people don’t listen to what they hear. They don’t read what they see. I am continually amazed how even text messages (with less than 160 characters) can be incorrectly responded to. Or how one major point (how many major points can there be in a text?) is completely ignored.

As our society continues to evolve with the aid of all kinds of techno-gadgets, communication matters more and more. As a writer and speaker, I am continually assessing how we are communicating and how we are not.

I am a freelance writer and editor trying to help people say what they want others to hear and to write what they want others to see. It isn’t always easy, but with a little effort and a lot of typing we can communicate something that might possibly matter.