Monday, October 31, 2011

If You Search for and Replace These Words, Your Writing Will Improve by 200%

The following is a list of words and phrases you probably don't need to use. If you search for these words and phrases, and then delete them outright (or, in a few of the examples below, replace them with other words), your writing will improve. I have only recently compiled this list, so don't be surprised if, in my earlier blog entries, I didn't practice what I'm preaching. ;-D

Of course, all of these words and phrases have their time and place. The best writers know not only to avoid most of these words most of the time, but also when to use them. But if your goal is more modest—to go from being a bad writer to a fair one—you probably won't go wrong just banishing these phrases outright. Hey, it's a start. :-)

immediately - "I immediately noticed…" would be better as "I noticed," unless, of course, the timing of your noticing something is important to the narrative.

extremely - "I am extremely happy." "I am happy" is snappier. This word falls under a category I call "Quantifying the unquantifiable." What is the difference between "extremely happy" and "happy"? If you cannot distinguish between those gradations of happiness, best to drop the word that expresses the amount of happiness.

very - Another quantifier that's usually lazily applied. "I was very impressed." How much more impressed is that than "impressed"?

somewhat - "I was somewhat amused." Before you write that, ask yourself, "Really? Or was I amused?" The word does work in some instances (a "somewhat reliable" employee is not the same as a "reliable" one), but often it seems to be appended as if by bad habit. In addition to quantifying the unquantifiable, it also falls under the category of hedging terms—those that suggest a strange reluctance on the part of the speaker to emotionally commit. It's as if the writer is afraid to admit that he or she is amused and finds it cooler to profess being only "somewhat amused."

"a bit" is another sort of hedger. "I disagree a bit with this guy." Do you disagree or don't you?

rather - Ever since I heard a comedian say, "I think I'm rather smart—because I use words like 'rather,'" I search for this word in my writing and almost always delete it.

quite - Similar to the previous. "I was quite pleased." Usually unnecessary.

really - "I was really amazed," as opposed to being "figuratively amazed." Just say, "I was amazed." This is one of several "stating that the real is real" words.

"actually" is another one of those. You actually don't actually have to use the word "actually" as often as you actually seem to actually think you do.

truly - Same deal. You wouldn't tell me something "untruly." "Untruly, I loved the potato salad."

incredibly - "I was incredibly amused." Just, "I was amused," please. This one is even worse than the others because "incredibly" has a meaning that, in this context, makes no sense (the incredible is that which is not readily credible; by that definition "incredibly amused" is nonsense).

Related to "incredibly," we find people turning nearly any "strong" word into an emphasis word. For example:

shockingly entertaining - Unless one is being entertained by electric shocks, or by, more metaphorically, a horror movie that uses "shock" effects to entertain, one should not use the word "shockingly" here. There is really no end to this list of corrupted words used as emphasizers ("Amazingly profound," "Ridiculously good," etc.). Find your own bad habits and then search and replace them.

the opportunity to... - "This learning camp gives students the opportunity to explore biofuels." - Rewrite as: "In this camp, students explore biofuels." "the opportunity to" is usually wasteful language because "the opportunity" is self-evident if (as in this example) the students are doing that thing.

I found myself - "I found myself reading a book" "I found myself at the movies." "I found myself talking to a learned man." The phrase "I found myself" usually indicates a startling moment of self-awareness, an awakening to a reality that one had overlooked previously (see the lyrics to Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," which correctly captures this bewilderment). But to use it all the time recalls a senile person staggering semi-lucidly through life. "I found myself at the movies," for example, suggests that the individual might have "come to" while in a movie theater. You expect a serial abuser of this phrase to excitedly wonder, "I keep finding myself in interesting places! I wonder where I will find myself next?" It's silly.

Usually, you can replace "did become" or "had become" with "became." There are many other such phrases one could search for in this same vein; find the ones you abuse the most and then add them to the list.

It is apparent that… - when this phrase is used to indicate something that is obvious, delete it.

specific - "I asked a specific question." "We had specific goals." Sometimes a necessary word, but often inserted out of laziness and reflex.

What are some other words or phrases that, if deleted, would result in crisper writing?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Eurotrash or Eurotreasure?": How It Began

Here are the 14 Euro tunes that began my love affair with European pop and dance music (as I originally reviewed here). Cheesy? Very. But I love them. It's been over 10 years since those days. On 1 November I head back to Croatia to begin a multi-month odyssey immersed once again in Europe's wonderful/crazy music scene. This is how my interest in all that began. Thanks to all YouTubers who post these trash-treasures, thereby allowing this crazy music to survive. :-)


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Posterity Letter: 19 October 2011

When Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to an individual which, in tone, clearly and amusingly betrayed his own awareness that said letter would likely enter the public record one day, his friends and family jokingly referred to it as a "posterity letter." Here is my posterity letter to my mother and sister.

Greetings, Kathy and Mom. I would have discussed this with you in person a week ago, but I was still working on the many details, and I hate to waste people's time with hypothetical chit-chat. Also, there are far too many specifics to address than I possibly can in an already too-long email, so I send this to you knowing full well that I haven't addressed all your likely questions and concerns.

I will be heading off to Croatia on November 1, and once again have successfully made arrangements to continue to work for my organization for a three-month period while I am over there, with the condition being that the organization and I will re-evaluate the situation at the end of that time in order to determine 1) whether to continue with that arrangement (unlikely), 2) whether I need to return to Atlanta in order to stay continuously employed, or 3) whether I apply for a leave of absence. It is worth noting that the cost of living in Croatia will be lower than that in Atlanta; I have also saved up a good amount of money to cushion me.

The point is to make a concerted drive to transition into another career as a journalist. There is no guarantee of success; perhaps there is a greater likelihood of failure. But I don't think that the words carved in stone at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial reading, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed," express a mere platitude. Nor was Steve Jobs trying to craft a hollow bumper-sticker slogan when he said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." The fact is, with 40 looming large I ever more acutely realize that this is the only life I'll ever have, and it would be tragic to waste it frozen into my cowardly inaction over my current employment situation by a struggling economy that shows no sign of improvement in the near future.

The other, more positive fact is that in Europe I feel invigorated, energized, and driven. The positive energy I feel over there is why I am taking this sort of a gamble, and why I think there is at least some chance of success. It's a risk--if success were guaranteed, then obviously it wouldn't be a risk--but one I must attempt.

I know you will worry, and let me assure you that you have company there. I've been waking up every night between 3 and 5 AM contemplating these enormous questions for several weeks. (Incidentally, magnesium supplements are good for treating the symptoms of stress, my doctor friends told me after I described my ordeal with worry-induced insomnia. Just a tip.) On the positive side, the fears and paranoia I entertain are also motivators to keep me moving forward. Obviously, I don't want to fail, so I will be working harder than I have my whole life to find success. This email is a contract to you pledging the application of such vigorous energy. This will not be a vacation.

I have already arranged what appears to be a nice apartment in Zagreb for three months which has an internet connection, so we can Skype and stay in touch, including over the holidays. I have been warned that in Zagreb winter is "cruel and sharp," which, as a veteran of Kiev in January, sounds intriguing.

We can discuss all this soon (I will be busy tonight cleaning out my extended stay room, so tomorrow night might be a good time to chat).

I am always glad to be of service in giving you things to talk about. Be good, don't worry, and take care!


Mom's reaction? Positive!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Congregation of Creatures Great and Small

Another non-Euro blog entry. I'll be back on theme soon enough, but for now, enjoy another report from Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

"During my sermon I ask that there be no talking or barking," joked Pastor Jeff Meyers to an audience of about 50 humans seated on folding chairs, who in turn were surrounded by about 30 dogs (plus at least one cat and a stunningly colorful parrot named "Hector"). All had gathered that Saturday morning on the North Avenue Presbyterian Church parking deck for the Blessing of the Pets, an activity that will also take place Sunday in many other churches here in Atlanta and across the country.

The sight of a pastor crouched on the ground as he pets and prays for dog after dog might strike some as unusual, but the pastors exuded a self-aware cheeriness that prevented the scene from inviting any "Daily Show"-type irreverence. And it's a scene that may become increasingly normal to witness; the Blessing of the Pets has been growing rapidly in popularity, says Pastor Meyers.

The origins of the event extend back to the activities of a 13th century friar and animal lover, St. Francis of Assisi, explained Tim Rogers-Martin, Executive Associate Pastor for Equipping Ministries, who chatted while he cradled his own dog, "Sunday," a stray who had been found at a church on that day of the week over 15 years ago. St. Francis's feast day falls on October 4, and so the first weekend of that month is a natural time to celebrate the value of animals.

Explained Pastor Meyers, "These services developed out of Roman Catholic tradition, especially the Anglican and the Episcopalian tradition…Four or five years ago we started doing our own at North Avenue."

In the five years that Pastor Meyers has been employed at North Avenue, he has seen attendance at the blessings swell. "I think it was All Saints [Episcopal] that first did the blessing of the animals [in Midtown Atlanta]," he says, gesturing in the direction of that church. "Then, we started doing it, and then the Lutheran church down the street started doing it. A lot of different churches are doing it--not only for the congregation members, but for the community. And in five years…that's a lot of blessing of the animals!"

Some animals in attendance could use a little hope. Scott and Solange Han-Barthelemy arrived with their "torby" (part tabby, part tortoiseshell) cat, Penny, in a carrier. Penny is 12 years old and faces surgery for cancer in the coming days.

The sermon began with Psalm 148, which makes much mention of animals as part of the creation, including "Creeping things and flying birds." Pastor Meyers then said, "We have caused the animal kingdom needless suffering."

In an interview afterward, he expatiated on that theme. "I wouldn't say this as an employee at North Avenue," he explained, "but for me, personally, I'm a vegetarian. I believe people need to take into consideration the sentience of animals--the fact that animals can feel suffering." He explains that as animals are a part of God's creation, and that our treatment of the natural world comes back around to impact us, essentially a "Blessing of the Animals" is a blessing for all of creation.

The issue of whether or not animals have souls, and therefore whether or not pets and their human owners will be reunited in Heaven, is one that has been debated for centuries. Does the bestowing of blessings on pets suggest belief in an afterlife for Fido?

"God has not given us access to these answers," Pastor Meyers says. "We do know that in the eschatological vision of the end of all things, there seem to be animals there symbolizing peace. Now is that just metaphorical, or is that literal? I don't know. But I know that it's there, and that God does care about animals a lot. They are part of his creation. I am more concerned about the ethical treatment of animals here, and I leave the questions of the afterlife to faith."

Faith has already guided Charlotte Carmichael to an answer. While her border collie, Sada, played energetically around her feet, she said, "I believe all dogs go to heaven. And cats. All of them." She paused. "Except maybe snakes," she concluded with a laugh.