Last Year

A lot of last year happened in my head. It started with an MRI of my sinuses, which they said needed surgery. So I got on a list and waited and saw a specialist and eventually I went to sleep and when I woke up I could breathe better than ever. Funny thing, as I recovered from the drilling and scraping they’d done, my sense of smell heightened. One afternoon I was standing there making lentil soup, and when I added the seasonings, I could smell them — I mean just standing there — not even hunched over the pot whisking the air up to my nose with an open hand. Never had I experienced such a thing.

About the same time as all this, I noticed I had to hold books at arm’s length, which meant the twenty fifteen vision I enjoyed all my life was gone, just like that. Not that it bothered me like I used to think it would. It’s been a good run and it’s a defect easy to fix. In fact, just before Christmas I was browsing a gift shop with a friend and they had some fancy reading glasses on offer, so I figured why not try some on. Sure enough, the whole world got closer.

End of the year I managed to contract a yeast infection in my left ear, and that took a good month or two to really settle. Down at the beach I couldn’t hear the tide coming in quite right. My own voice shut to a muffle on one side. The only relief was when I’d put on headphones and practice electric guitar so loud as to override the blockage.

I’ll be honest, there’s been more in my head than sensory compromise. I don’t like to talk about it because I don’t like to bring anyone down — and you should notice that about people when you ask them how they’ve been and even though nothing’s new or upbeat, they say they’re good. You should notice that when they say they’re sailing smooth, they might just be trying to not say something else. Anyway the fact is, as I see it, my annual failings haven’t been limited to my eyes, ears and nose.

I tried a few things last year. I tried to start a community service project, but that never really took off. Seemed everybody was interested but not interested all at the same time. Everybody loves the idea; nobody wants to get behind it. But that’s alright, I tell myself; it’s not the right time and place or some such thing.

I tried for a stack of regular jobs. Trouble is I’m over-qualified for so much, but under-experienced for everything else. I’ve been trying on and off for eight years now and, though I believe I can light up a room, I don’t think I’m so much as an after-image in the eyes of this business. But that’s alright, I tell myself; my time will come.

I tried to publish a few pieces, but nobody was ready to take a risk, as I tell myself; softens the blow. You wait and wait to hear back — ask any writer and they’ll tell you the same — and when you hear back you hear this polite expression of great interest but poor fit. It’s false and you know it and they know it but nobody says it. I’ve learned to take it as indication that they don’t represent who wants to read me. But that’s alright, I tell myself; through it all I’ve been writing a big story — what I think is my best yet.

And I’m getting better. I can feel it. My friend Andy, who grew up around Frank Sargeson and New Zealand’s mid-century literary elite, he likes the big story. He’s my audience, and I can’t overstate the joy I’ve found in finding that audience. I’ll tell you, Andy’s eighty-two years old and as far as I can tell, still getting stronger. That’s something to strive for.

Anyway, what I really want to say is that Charlie’s almost ten now, and he’s had a good run this past year. We’ve been sitting here at the beach together on a bench, each with a book. With my sinuses fixed, I can smell the salt in the air and my coffee tastes the best I’ve ever had. I can see the paddle boarders and swimmers bobbing in the tide, and even without correction I can see enough to write a few thoughts at arm’s length. The ear infection cleared, I can hear the gulf whooshing toward its high mark, and when it recedes in six hours maybe we’ll come back and look for sand dollars or skim in the shallows.

Right now Charlie is telling me this and that about some big story he’s concocting in his head. Something or another I don’t know the first thing about. But that’s alright, I tell myself. I’m his audience; this is his time to shine, and I can’t overstate the joy this brings us both.

‘Where do I belong?’ An open-plan office conundrum.

A recent study concluded that open-plan offices do the opposite of their intended aim. Instead of fostering creativity, they stifle creativity. Instead of facilitating face-to-face communication, they inspire emails and gossip. And perhaps worst, in the case of the hot-desk open office, rather than foster collaboration, the cool kids get the seats by the window and the outcasts get stuck between the tea point and the toilets.

At the heart of all this is the simple need to feel as though you belong somewhere. I mean this both physically and socially.

In the physical case, there’s a comfort in knowing this is your spot in the room. Maybe there’s a slightly better spot over by Bob’s window seat, but this’ll do and it’s a place to call your own.

Certainty facilitates efficiency; hot-desking and open-plan offices reduce certainty. Will I get a good desk today? Can I make a private call? Who’s looking over my shoulder? These are unnecessary stresses that affect employees’ productivity and sense of value.

In the social case, consider how the person who doesn’t get to sit with the cool kids feels — and let’s face it, like every high school lunch room, there are always cool kids. Those left out of the popular group might feel as though they don’t belong. This is a physical metaphor of how they start to feel about their role in an organisation, and this creates a need for leaders to take interventive measures — a burden that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even if the motivation of an open-plan office setup was to demonstrate a trust in people to sort themselves, the effect has been to make people feel leaderless. Rather than empowered, they feel helpless; rather than led, they feel ignored. These feelings are the enemies of belonging, and they are to be avoided.

Similar to how university students crave the certainty of a marking rubric, employees crave a certain identity within an organisation, and the certainty that leaders recognise who they are as individuals. One way to achieve this is to communicate clearly both where employees belong in the physical office, and how they fit into the organisation’s overall operations. Unsurprisingly, the physical layout of an office space is no substitute for good communication and strong leadership.

Once you work that out, everything else sorts itself.

Word Choice

Let’s start simply:

There is no perfect word.

If language never changed, then there might be perfect words. But language changes with use; a writer’s use of a word alters a reader’s understanding of that word, which means words change as you read them. Words change as you write them as well, including your understanding of how particular words fit into sentences, which words best express your thoughts, and so forth. The changes are, of course, incremental and subtle — probably entirely imperceptible from one instance to the next. But over time, there’s no doubt that a writer’s word use changes, and as a consequence, there is no perfect word.

I start with this, partly, to relieve a common writer’s anxiety. Sometimes we search and search for just the right thing to say or just the right word to use right here right now. And that struggle can distract us from the important work of expressing ideas, no matter how flawed, before they escape our consciousness.

They say that:

Writing is rewriting.

Getting the idea out is the first, and sometimes most difficult, step. I have found that many new to writing feel as though they need to produce publishable sentences on their first try. This simply isn’t true, especially for professional writers; we get ideas on paper, then revise revise revise, then hand the writing off to editors who revise further — and often it’s a team of editors who do the final rearranging and reworking.

We’ll say more about this when we talk about structure, but for now, your best bet is to relax. Let the words come out whether you think they’re just the right words or not. The words we choose to first record our ideas will not (likely) be the words we use in our final expression.

Building offers an analogy. When building a house, first you frame the house. Then, you start adding finishes, such as wallboard, ceilings, and floors. Once all that is in place, you do final finishes, like mouldings, baseboards, and so forth. It all starts pretty rough, but by the end, you live in a (hopefully) nicely polished home. (The same goes for building a row of flats to building a garden shed: it’s rough work first, finish work later.)

Writing is similar in that, at the start, we “frame” our ideas. The words might seem rough; there might be gaps between one idea and the next; it might not be clear how to navigate the structure you’re building. But then we revise, and in our first revision we close some of the gaps and improve the flow and structure of our writing. Then, at the very end, we find just the right words — however imperfect they’re doomed to be!

The word choice lesson is this:

We refine our word choices as we rewrite and rewrite.

In summary: the point of this is two-fold.

First, don’t worry too much about the first words you choose to express your ideas; they will change.

Second, you may always feel that you could have found a better word to express yourself, but remember that your use of a word alters a reader’s understanding of how a word can fit into a thought or sentence. Your writing contributes to changes in the ways that we all use words.

(If you’re interested in more articles about writing, this article is part of an online course called The Essay.)

Why “Root Beer in New Zealand”?

Maybe because it tastes a bit like liniment, root beer isn’t easy to find in New Zealand. But to me, it tastes like old times and good memories, so once in a while I fancy a sip.

Could be I could have convinced  a distributor to import an old favourite, but I reckon better yet, why not brew my own. The trouble is the main ingredient that gives root beer its traditional liniment taste — sassafras — doesn’t grow in New Zealand. So I had to improvise.

Crush up a kawakawa leaf, breathe into your hand, and you’ll activate the flavour and scent of sassafras’s peppery alternative. I made up an extract and mixed it with other local flavours: manuka and makomako to name two. Long story short, all added up, New Zealand root beer is now a flavour all its own — and it goes as fine with vanilla ice cream as any root beer should.

Why Root Beer in New Zealand? Because when I wanted to produce a tasty beverage, I put in the hours and adapted as necessary to get things right. That’s how I work as a researcher, writer, and editor, too.

Writing is a taste-driven vocation. A writer sensitive to readers’ wants and needs can fashion prose with plenty of zing — the same way a careful brewer can cook up a good old fashioned root beer, distinct in its flavour, yet not tasting of liniment. I bring this sensitivity to my writing — the kind of sensitivity I learned brewing Root Beer in New Zealand.

How to write better emails

“Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

So said Strunk in The Elements of Style, and Strunk’s suggestion is really about planning.

Today, many tend to type and think at the same time, considering little of what “units” are best for composition.

How do you plan your emails? Do you tap your fingers across a keyboard and fill a screen with words? Do you jot down a few bullet points? Do you dictate your thoughts on a topic and copy and paste them into sensible order later? Any of these can be good techniques when used thoughtfully.

Here, then, is a suggestion for how to improve the structure of your writing in general:

Paragraphs are elaborations of simple ideas. When you start writing, start with simple, un-elaborated ideas. Often, these ideas will suggest actions. Consider how you might write about starting a business:

  • Create a business plan.
  • Contact possible partners
  • Follow up with contacts

This outline suggests at least three paragraphs, where each paragraph gives the reader a good reason to think the simple action should be taken, and gives the reader a sense of how to take that action. In this way, the paragraph is our “unit of composition”.

Paragraph 1:

When starting a business, one should begin by formulating a business plan. The plan should include a clear description of what the business will offer, plus how the business will deliver that offering. A comprehensive plan will include analysis of opportunities in the market and possible threats to the business’s viability.

Paragraph 2:

With a good plan established, you should contact potential partners. If you are brewing beer, for example, you should contact ingredient suppliers and begin developing relationships. Also, contact distributors to determine how and to where you can deliver your product most efficiently.

In this we see how the brief bullet pointed outline is really a way to plan paragraphs. This is a useful tool that can improve your writing significantly. Focus on the paragraphs, and be sure that each paragraph develops one point. Don’t wander and ramble; keep it tight.

It might take a few minutes at the start to establish the plan, but by the end, your readers will notice that you’ve taken the time. They’ll appreciate the clarity of your communications.

In short: you should plan your writing by considering the importance of paragraphs. Don’t simply start by typing into a blank screen. Rather, start with a simple outline of a few key points you want to convey. Then fill in the details to make your case clearly and concisely.

How to tighten up your writing

Start with simple, declarative statements.

From business writing to academic writing, poor subject and verb choices spoil the presentation of good ideas and tax a reader’s attention span. Writers call it the “active voice”, but it’s simply this: pick the right subjects and verbs and your readers will will keep reading.

(You’re still reading, right?)

Consider this:

The building was sold by Mitchell Froom before it was refitted for occupancy by Perfect Curve.

How about this instead:

Mitchell Froom sold the building to Perfect Curve prior to its refitting.

A subtle difference, perhaps, but an important one. In the first case, the building is the subject of the sentence; is this really the subject? In the second case, Mitchell Froom is the subject; this is appropriate because, let’s imagine, we’re pitching for Froom. (The case will be similar if we’re pitching for the refit, or for Perfect Curve.)

Furthermore, in the first sentence, refitted “for occupancy” is probably unnecessary, unless Perfect Curve did something unexpected. Surely when you refit something, you intend to use it, and the use of the building is simply part of Perfect Curve’s identity. (Let’s assume that we know Perfect Curve to be an advertising agency. Not likely they’ll be refitting with surgical theatres or warehouse space.)

Also, the first sentence is 16 words; the second sentence is 12 words. We’ve reduced the length by a quarter, and this is good. Economy and efficiency in your communication is just as important as economy and efficiency in your supply chain.

Finally, notice in the first sentence that the action is “was sold”. That kind of verb construction often signals that you’ve chosen the wrong subject. This isn’t always true, but it’s a good guide to help you identify spots where you might be more efficient — and more precise — in your communications.

In short, tight writing saves time and money. Keep it tight.