10 Simple Rules to Make Your Email Life Better

Moran Communications, Inc.

The Write Stuff

All about Email – Ten simple rules to do it the right way.

The good news: email is fast. The bad news: email is fast.

Email has become so key to the way we communicate, it’s amazing that a lot of people don’t have a handle on the basics of this powerful technology. Consider that every time you send an email message you’re putting your reputation on the line. Do you want to be known as a careless jerk? If not, read on.
1. When to use e-mail and when not to use it. Professor Nicholas Negroponte, in his groundbreaking book Being Digital (First Vintage, 1996), drew a critical distinction when thinking about communication. Should the communication you’re about to have with someone be synchronous (necessitating a give and take), or should it be asynchronous (where the back and forth between people isn’t necessary)? “When should we schedule the Annual Dinner?” This will require a lot of input and ideas from all involved, so it probably should be a synchronous communication in the form of a meeting or a conference call. But, “Please be in my office for a staff meeting Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.” is asynchronous: you’re telling somebody simply to be there—no discussion is necessary. This is best handled by email or a text message.

2. Reply and Reply All. If you take this to heart and learn the critical difference between these two buttons, you may save your business or career, avoid a lawsuit, and generally evade a lot of ugly mayhem in your life. This applies especially to a large organization, which, thanks to e-mail, may be geographically diverse. A message sent to a bunch of people may contain some information about which you have a strong opinion. If you express your opinion to “all,” you can seriously alienate some people. A regional manager named Bob sends a message to everybody in a group. One of the group sends a reply to his friend, Jim, indicating his displeasure with Bob. Instead of just directing his message to his friend, he hits reply all that “Bob is a flaming idiot.” Whoops! Time to dust off the resume. When replying to an email, slow down and be careful. An inadvertent reply all can make your life miserable.

3. The title or subject line. Avoid Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: When sending an email message, always change the subject line to convey the subject of the message you’re sending. Some people, many people, through simple laziness, just hit forward, reply, or reply all to send a message that has absolutely nothing to do with the current message. A couple of years ago I and a long list of recipients received an email entitled, “Christmas Party.” Two years later, some of the people on that original list still send messages to the group with the subject line, “Re: Christmas Party,” although the message has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas party. One of those message was sent by the manager of our vacation condo association warning all owners to move their cars from the parking lot Monday because the driveway was going to be repaved. Chaos resulted. This happens all the time. It shouldn’t.

4. Don’t be a comedian. Use humor, if you must, but be appropriate. A poke-in-the-ribs joke may work in the hallway, but it can look weird a few years later in an old email. What seems funny when spoken can come across radically different in an email. Be careful when using humor at someone else’s expense.

5. Do not EMWD! What, you may ask, is EMWD? It is emailing while drunk. If you have had a few pops too many and are feeling loquacious, unplug your computer. What seemed to you like beautiful prose that evening might be horrifying when you read the response in the morning. This rule also applies to EMWA (emailing while angry). Back when we communicated only by paper mail, the tasks of writing the letter, printing it, signing it, putting it into an envelope, and putting a stamp on it provided a lot of waypoints for rethinking the message we were about to send. The good news is that email is fast. The bad news is that email is fast. I shall never forget an email blast that an obviously soused woman sent to everyone in our condo association. “If anybody sees my f…ing husband or the whore bitch he sleeps with please spit on them for me.” Ouch. That poor lady, who is actually a nice person, violated both the EMWD and the EMWA rules. She also misspelled every other word.

6. DO NOT SHOUT! What you just read is called shouting, the inappropriate use of capital letters. It’s okay if you want to emphasize something, perhaps a word or two, but it is completely tacky if this is your default font when writing anything. It makes you look like an amateur, especially when you’re shouting about something that is NOT WORTH SHOUTING ABOUT. It also eliminates your ability to emphasize something that you really want to stand out. Twitter and Facebook, for example, allow for no bold, underline, or italics, so all caps is the only way to emphasize a word.

7. Break up your message into bite-sized paragraphs. If you want your email to be read, put yourself in the place of the reader. Appropriate use of paragraph breaks is always a good rule of writing, but it’s critical when using the Internet or email. People expect punchier messages on the computer screen. We live in the Information Age, and we all share the responsibility to deliver information as efficiently as possible. A never-ending paragraph screams out, “Don’t read me!”

8. If you have a website it should be part of your e-mail address. People spend thousands of dollars on a website and thousands more trying to drive traffic to it, but ignore a simple method of getting people to visit their site: their email address. How many times have you seen a business card promoting mybusiness.com but the email address, instead of bobjones@mybusiness.com, says bobjones@gmail.com? Every internet service provider that hosts websites includes free email boxes. Why people don’t take advantage of this is one of the mysteries of the Internet. It’s different, of course, if you’re an employee of a corporation or organization. In that case you should use a personal email address for personal correspondence.

9. Use a signature. All email software programs enable you to put in a signature or contact information automatically when you begin a message. It’s a mystery why everybody doesn’t do this, just as it’s amazing that people don’t use their website for their email address. You can even use different identities, for example, one as the head of your business, and the other showing you as a member of a non-profit board. Sometimes your message will result in a return phone call for clarification. Unless your contact information is there, you’re forcing the recipient to look up your phone number. If nothing else, a signature line with contact information is a simple courtesy. Not only do you make life easier on your recipient, but a signature also provides you with a valuable branding opportunity: to let people know who you are. Some writers include their amazon author’s page. In any email program, instructions on how to add a signature are usually found in preferences or options. Every time you send an email it becomes a marketing or a branding opportunity. It’s simple. Just do it.

10. Make nice. Email has become such a dominant part of everyday communication that obeying the rules of email etiquette simply makes sense. An excellent and well-titled book on the subject is called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 2007).

Email Marketing

It’s just good business to send regular messages to your email list. It may be an alert about your latest blog post, or that a new issue of your company newsletter is available on your website. Often, you will want to send a “blast” email to alert your list that you’ve just rolled out a new product or service.
Email marketing services such as Constant Contact, Mailchimp, or Aweber do most of the work for you. If you send regular email alerts, you should definitely consider one of these third-party providers. They know the ropes and make life easier.

Caution – People on your list should have “opted in.” In the “old days,” you could buy or rent a commercial mailing list of targeted prospects. Indeed, you can still do this today with regular mail. But you can’t just go out and buy or rent an email list (although it’s done). Email is now controlled by the Federal Anti-Spam Law, also known as the Can Spam Act.

Spam is unsolicited email, also known as junk email. The law doesn’t allow false header information, such as a fictitious sender or location. Deceptive subject lines are also prohibited. You also must state if your email is an advertisement. Another requirement of the law is that you provide your physical address or post office box that is registered on the email communication. You must also provide a simple “opt out” or “unsubscribe” link to enable the recipient to let you know he doesn’t want to be on your list anymore. You have 10 days to delete them from your list, but software is available to automate this. The big email marketing services provide this on the standard templates.

The penalty for violating the Can Spam Act can be stiff, as much as $16,000 per offense. It’s best to use a third-party mailer such as Constant Contact, which partially insulates you. But Constant Contact will drop you for repeat violations.

Email is a gift from the gods of technology. Don’t blow it.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you found this blog post useful.

 

 

Russ Moran

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Novel Covers and Titles – Tips for the writer

Yes, you can tell a book by its cover, or at least that’s what the majority of readers do. Here are some thoughts for the cover and title of your novel

Covers

The cover of your novel is one of those critical points on your road to publication. Chances are strong that you’re not the one to design it. Unless you’re a trained graphic designer, don’t attempt to design your own cover. But don’t listen to me if you strongly believe you have the talent. Give it a try and show your work to others for opinions.

The whole purpose behind a good cover is to get a potential reader (and buyer) to pick up your book or to click the image online. Cover design costs range from less than a hundred dollars to thousands for an A-list designer. When you use a cover designer you first communicate all of your thoughts on the content of your book. I always write the back cover words before contacting a designer and submit that along with my thoughts.

The words on the back of your book are important, whether it’s a brief description of the book, or even better, some snippets from positive reviews. Think of the back cover as your selling space. I’ve seen some inexperienced self-published authors leave the back empty except for artwork. That is pure insanity. It’s your chance to get a person to open the book. Why would somebody open the book if the back cover is blank?

How much is a good cover designer work? This is an entirely subjective question. I have seen covers on self-published books that, in my subjective opinion, are far superior to covers you see on The New York Times bestseller list. I’ve used a professional designer for eleven novels and two non-fiction books. There are countless books and online courses devoted to book covers. Reading about this subject can be as annoying as listening to a wine connoisseur prattle on about a new vintage. “This Bordeaux has curious presumptions and subtle humorous undercurrents?” What?

My criteria for a well-done cover is that it shows an element of mystery, a design that will pique a browser’s curiosity.

Can you save money and get a well-done cover? Yes, and I suggest that you consider premade book covers. Take a look at thebookcoverdesigner.com, a somewhat clumsily named website but one that tells you exactly what you can expect. The company uses a small army of professional cover designers who get paid a percentage if you buy one of the templates. These premade designs include artwork only. You have to supply the title, subtitle if any, your name, of course, and the words for the back cover. Once you’ve bought it, the cover is retired and nobody else can use it. The prices range from $30 to a couple of hundred dollars.

Make sure that the person you’re buying the template from includes paperback spine and back cover, not just the front cover for an ebook. Some of the artists charge a few dollars extra to include a paperback-ready design, and it’s worth it because the design needs to be tweaked to fit your chosen paperback book size and number of pages. The beauty of using a service like this is that you can look for a cover that captures the essence of your novel, one that jumps out at you. I’ve used a professional designer for eleven novels and two non-fiction books at a cost of $250 for each cover. For my most recent book, Robot Depot, I used a premade template that cost $40. This, again, is entirely subjective, but I can’t see how the custom designed books at $250 are any better than the premade cover for $40.

I always circulate a few designs among friends and ask their opinion. This is “fair use,” so don’t worry about copyright infringement.

Titles

The title of a novel isn’t as important as the title of a nonfiction book, for reasons that should be obvious. A nonfiction book title needs to say something about what’s inside. My book on law for the layman is entitled Justice in America—How it Works, How it Fails. That summarizes what the book is about.

Compare that to the titles on some of my novels, or anybody’s novels for that matter: The GrayShip, The Thanksgiving Gang, A Scent of Revenge, A Time of Fear, The Shadows of Terror, Sideswiped, The Reformers, The Skies of Time, The Keepers of Time, A Reunion in Time, The President is Missing, and Robot Depot. I use those titles, not to explain what’s in the book, which they don’t, but to pique a reader’s interest. I hope I’ve piqued yours.

Just as in choosing a book cover, get opinions from other people about your title.

To your writing success.

 

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Easy Writing Errors to Avoid

Most writing errors aren’t the result of ignorance, but are simply mistakes, mistakes that are easy to overlook. In this post I review some of the most basic errors, and ways to avoid them.

When you proofread your writing, you concentrate on the general idea and look to see if you’ve gotten it right. That’s the problem with proofreading your own work – you (and I) tend to glance over the words, missing the all-to-common errors.

Reality insists that we proof our own work, which is a problem. If you write a business letter, for example, you may not be able to find someone to give your work a look-over. It’s great if you have an editor, or at least a willing proofreader at your disposal. If you’re writing a book, don’t even think that you can be the only editor. That’s a big mistake, one that self-published authors often make. You must have an editor for your book; it’s that simple. Ideally you will use a professional paid editor, not the friendly neighbor who’s a retired English teacher.

Common misused words – These are homophones – They all sound alike

            Even though you may understand the difference between these words, when proofreading it’s easy to miss them because they sound identical. Because our recollection of words is hard-wired into our brains, we simply don’t see these as mistakes.

  • There, they’re, their
    • There – refers to a place, physical or abstract, such as “Put the milk there.” It can also be used with any part of the word “be” (is, am, are, was, were) to show the existence of something, as in, “There is a parade on Main Street.”
    • They’re – is a contraction for “they are.” “They’re coming to get me.”
    • Their – is a plural possessive. “Their flag is beautiful.”
  • It’s, its. This one is an all-time favorite because it’s so easy to miss when proofreading.
    • “It’s” is a contraction for “It is.” “It’s a cold winter.”
    • “Its” is a possessive. “Its color is purple.”
  • You, your, you’re. When typing, it’s so easy to put in the word “you” when you meant to type “your” or “you’re.
    • Your – A possessive. “Your business is doing great.”
    • You’re – A contraction of “you are.” “You’re looking great today.”
    • Tip. Do a search on the word “you.” Yes, it’s laborious, but you will find mistakes. Microsoft spell check thinks that you, your, you’re, its, and it’s are all just fine as long as they’re spelled correctly. It’s up to you the writer/editor to make sure they are used
  1. Repeaters (more often typos than grammatical errors)
  • the the
  • is is
  • a a
  • .. (two periods at the end of a sentence – or two commas in the middle).
  • Tip – Just do a search on “the the,” “is is” and “a a.”

 

Let your writing sit for a while, a day if possible. Then you will come back to it with freshness. Stephen King recommends six weeks as cooling time to let a novel sit before you review it. Obviously this won’t work for business writing, but for any important business communication, put some time between you and your first draft.

Russ Moran

 

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A Very Dumb Rule

Conventional wisdom among writers holds that the word “very” is poisonous, a useless word that clouds your writing, adding an unnecessary emphasis when you could achieve the same thing with a more powerful word. Substitute “outraged” for “very angry.”

I believe the hatred of the word very began with Mark Twain. Who, after all would pick an argument with a literary giant.

Twain famously said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

But, like many “rules” of writing, this one has become overdone. Charles Murray, for example, in his Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, advocates performing a global search and delete of the word. “As for very,” Murray writes, “you may, if you insist, take a look at each occurrence before deleting. But hardly any of them should survive.”

Well, I feel duly chastised for believing that a word in the English language has a reason to exist. Very is both an adjective and an adverb, and sometimes, it’s just the right word.

As an adjective, we see it used (to the horror of the purists) in a sentence such as, “I visited the very school that I attended when I lived in England.”

As an adverb, and this is where the purists come down with the vapors, we see it in a sentence such as, “He was very tall.” A very Nazi would substitute, “He was tall as a skyscraper,” or some other such literary bon mot.

In one of my novels, I had a scene where a new CIA agent tries to convince her superior that she should be allowed to use hand grenades. After showing him that she understood the weapon, she then hit him with the clincher: “And I have a very strong throwing arm.” As an exercise I tried my best to come up with a way for her to convince her boss without the use of the word very. I couldn’t. She was simply emphasizing that her strong throwing arm was quite strong. Well, it was very strong. Take out the word, and the sentence would suffer, with all due apologies to Mark Twain.

So here is the rule that I follow concerning the word very: Use the word sparingly, very sparingly if you will. You may want to restrict it to dialogue. The reason it belongs in dialogue is because that is the way real people speak. A bad report card will always result in a parent telling a kid that she is “very disappointed,” not “quite disappointed,” not “hugely disappointed,” very disappointed.

The best rule of writing is this: Don’t become a slave to a rule.

 

 

 

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White Paper – How to Improve Business Writing

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Moran Communications, Inc.

The Write Stuff

We Write for Your Business

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How to Improve Your Business Writing

 

Business writing, like any kind of written communication, requires rules, rules that should be followed, and, if ignored, can turn a meaningful piece of correspondence into a disaster. A poorly written letter to a customer can put your continued relationship at risk. A poorly written letter to a prospective customer can mean you’ll never have a business relationship. A poorly written website can leave potential customers shaking their heads in confusion.

Editing what you write.

Practical wisdom commands that you are the first editor of anything that you write. If the correspondence is interoffice, you may be the only one who edits it. But if the letter targets someone outside your company, or you’re writing website copy, a second set of eyeballs is essential. If the letter or web content is an important sales piece, make sure one or two managers look at it. A professional copywriter never thinks that his or her own editing is the final word, nor should you.

The Self-Editing Process

Think of editing as gardening. Your first job is to eliminate weeds. Here are some recommendations for you to follow. You may wish to create your own, but just stick to the rules.

Do Not Try to Impress the Reader with Your Brilliance

Don’t write for yourself, write for the reader. Does your product “drive the development of relevant taxonomies…?” I actually read that on a web page. I also read about a “company that focuses on holistic Business Process. …” Where do I sign? Tell the reader what your product or service can do for him or her, in other words, the benefits you offer, in plain English not “MBAspeak.”

Use the Active Tense – This is a critical rule of good writing, and one that’s emphasized in the classic Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Rather than say, “A big difference will be made by using our product,” say, “Our product will make a big difference.”

Using Microsoft Word, or whatever spell-check you use, go through the following steps.

  1. Common misused words – These are homophones – They all sound alike

            Even though you may understand the difference between these words, when proofreading it’s easy to miss errors because they sound identical.

  • There, they’re, their
    • There – refers to a place, physical or abstract, such as “Put the milk there.” It can also be used with any part of the word “be” (is, am, are, was, were) to show the existence of something, as in, “There is a parade on Main Street.”
    • They’re – is a contraction for “they are.” “They’re coming to get me.”
    • Their – is a plural possessive. “Their flag is beautiful.”
  • It’s, its.
    • “It’s” is a contraction for “It is.” “It’s a cold winter.”
    • “Its” is a possessive. “Its color is purple.”
  • Your, you’re.
    • Your – A possessive. “Your business is doing great.”
    • You’re – A contraction of “you are.” “You’re looking great today.”
    • Tip. Do a search on the word “you.” Yes, it’s laborious, but you will find mistakes. Microsoft spell check thinks that you, your, you’re, its, and it’s are all just fine as long as they’re spelled correctly. It’s up to you the writer/editor to make sure they are used
  1. Repeaters (more often typos than grammatical errors)
  • the the
  • is is
  • a a
  • .. (two periods at the end of a sentence).
  • Tip – Just do a search on “the the,” “is is” and “a a.”

 

Let your writing sit for a while, a day if possible. Then you will come back to it with freshness. Stephen King recommends six weeks as cooling time to let a novel sit before you review the final draft. Obviously, six weeks won’t work for business writing, but for any important business communication, put some time between yourself and your first draft.

 

All Time Most Popular Writing Errors

The following was inspired by Ben Yagoda, author of How Not To Write Bad, Riverhead (February 5, 2013).

  1. Excessive wordiness. Eliminate unnecessary words. If a word is unnecessary it does not belong on a page. Example: “We recommend that every member of your sales force read, analyze and implement the following steps.” Better: “We recommend that your sales force follow these steps.”
  2. Weak beginnings. When possible, make the subject of a sentence a person, group, or object, rather than a concept or other intangible.

Example: “Intelligence is a quality shared by all of the students in the class.”

Better: “All of the students are smart.”

Avoid beginning a sentence with “there is” or “there are.”

Example: “There were five writers who gave readings at the bookstore this week.”

Better: “Five writers gave readings at the bookstore this week.”

  1. Weak endings.

Example: “Having a strong ending to a sentence is just as important as having a strong beginning.”

Better: “A well written sentence has a strong ending.” Note that the word “ending” is at the end of the sentence. It’s often best to end a sentence with a noun such as this.

  1. The simpler word is the best choice, usually (not always). This is not a strict rule, and always let your personal style be your guide, but simple trumps complicated. Don’t try to sound important or erudite.

Live, not reside

Buy, not purchase

Have, not possess

Use, not utilize

Person, not individual

 

  1. Spell-check is your friend, but not your best friend.

Spell-check has one job: to find misspelled words. That’s it.

What’s wrong with this sentence? “Seaman Harborrow fired a 45 caliber pistol from a distance of 25 years.” Microsoft Word’s spell-check found it perfectly okay. Of course, “years” should have been “yards,” but it didn’t bother the spell-check software because years was spelled correctly. I actually found this mistake in one of my books, but I ain’t telling which. (Yes, I fixed it).

Here are a few words that spell-check will pass by as correct, but it can be a disaster for your intended meaning: Heroine, heroin; super attendant (superintendant?); loner, loaner; bare, bear. Any others?

  1. Use a thesaurus with caution. Don’t use a thesaurus to find a substitute word that sounds more important. Sometimes “tool” is a much better word than “utensil.”
  2. Don’t punctuate by the way it sounds. Yes, how it sounds is important, but follow the rules. This is especially important with commas. Read the Elements of Style by Strunk & White and the hilarious Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. An excellent online source for punctuation is http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp.
  3. Words to avoid.

There are some words in the English language that are overused. The writer Bryan Garner calls them “skunked words,” meaning that they have an odor about them.

  • Literally
  • Impact as a verb
  • Unique when you mean unusual (although it may be a good choice in sales letters).
  • Going forward. “Going forward, we’re going to watch our costs.” Better to say, “in the future” or “from now on.”
  • A good word, but overused and misused.
  • Interface, especially when used as a verb.
  1. Watch your qualifiers and intensifiers

Trust yourself to make a statement without adding qualifiers such as “pretty,” “somewhat,” or “arguably.” Also watch intensifiers such as “very,” “extremely,” or “absolutely.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain

Example: “Tom Brady is an very talented quarterback, and his passing statistics absolutely place him at the top of the league.” This is also a bit wordy.

Better: “Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL.”

Caution: Some writing pundits go nuts over the word very. They, like Mark Twain, find it a useless word. Some recommend a global search and delete of the word very for every document. Well, not so fast. It’s true that the word very can make for lazy writing, but it is a word, commonly used in speech, and it has its place in the English language. A better idea is to search on the word and decide whether to delete it case by case. In writing fiction, leave the word very to dialog, where it resides in real life. That said, the word very can be very useful at times.

  1. Adverbs – Caution

An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King, On Writing.

But Stephen King was writing about fiction. In non-fiction, adverb use is more acceptable, but don’t overdo it. Every time you encounter a word ending in ly, ask yourself if it’s useful. Just as it is with the qualifier word very, adverbs should be used sparingly (note that I just used an adverb).

 

 

 

Email

The good news: e-mail is fast. The bad news: e-mail is fast.

Email has become so key to the way that we communicate, it’s amazing that a lot of people don’t have a handle on the basics of this powerful technology and the essentials of email etiquette.

When to use e-mail and when not to use it. Professor Nicholas Negroponte, in his groundbreaking book Being Digital (First Vintage, 1996), drew a critical distinction when thinking about communication. Should the communication you’re about to have with someone be synchronous (necessitating a give and take), or should it be asynchronous (where the back and forth between people isn’t necessary). “When should we schedule the Annual Dinner?” This will require a lot of input and ideas from all involved, so it should be a synchronous communication in the form of a meeting or a conference call. But, “Please be in my office for a staff meeting Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.” is asynchronous: you’re telling somebody simply to be there – no discussion is necessary. This is best handled by email or a text message.

Reply and reply all. If you take this to heart and learn the critical difference between these two buttons, you may save your business or career, avoid a lawsuit, and generally evade a lot of ugly mayhem in your life. This applies especially to a large organization, which, thanks to e-mail, may be geographically diverse. A message sent to a bunch of people may contain some information about which you have a strong opinion. If you express your opinion to “all,” you run the risk of seriously alienating some people. A regional manager named Bob sends a message to everybody in a group. One of the group sends you a direct email (not to all) indicating his displeasure with Bob. Instead of just replying to him, you reply to all that “Bob is a flaming idiot.” Whoops!

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: When sending an email message, always change the subject line to convey the subject of the message you’re sending. Some people, many people, through simple laziness just hit forward, reply, or reply all to send a message that has absolutely nothing to do with the current message. Let’s say you and a long list of recipients received an email a couple of years ago entitled, “Christmas Party.” Now, two years later, some of the people on that original list still send messages to the group with the subject line, “Re: Christmas Party,” although the message has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas party. This happens all the time. It shouldn’t.

Don’t be a comedian. Use humor, if you must, but be appropriate. A poke in the ribs joke may work in the hallway, but it can look  weird a few years later in an old email. What seems funny when spoken can come across very differently in an email. Be careful when using humor at someone else’s expense.

Do not EMWD! What, you may ask, is EMWD? It is emailing while drunk. If you have had a few pops too many and are feeling loquacious, unplug your computer. What seemed to you like beautiful prose that evening might be horrifying when you read the response in the morning. This rule also applies to EMWA (emailing while angry). Back when we communicated only by paper mail, the tasks of printing out the letter, signing it, inserting it into an envelope, and putting a stamp on it provided a lot of waypoints for rethinking the message we were about to send. The good news is that email is fast. The bad news is that email is fast.

Do Not SHOUT! What you just read is called shouting, the inappropriate use of capital letters. It’s okay if you want to emphasize something, but it is completely tacky if this is your default font when writing anything. It makes you look like an amateur, especially when you’re shouting about something that is NOT WORTH SHOUTING ABOUT. It also eliminates your ability to emphasize something that you really want to stand out. Twitter and Facebook, for example, have no bold, underline, or italics, so all caps is the only way to emphasize a word. I will not follow someone on Twitter or friend someone on Facebook who SHOUTS ALL THE TIME.

Break up your message into bite-sized paragraphs. If you want your email to be read, put yourself in the place of the reader. Appropriate use of paragraph breaks is always a good rule of writing, but it’s critical when using the Internet or email. People expect punchier messages on the computer screen. We live in the Information Age, and we all share the responsibility to deliver information as efficiently as possible. A never-ending paragraph screams out, “Don’t read me!”

If you have a website it should be part of your e-mail address. People spend thousands of dollars on a website and thousands more trying to drive traffic to it, but ignore a simple method of getting people to visit your site: your email address. How many times have you seen a business card promoting mybusiness.com but the email address, instead of bobjones@mybusiness.com, says bobjones@gmail.com. Every internet service provider that hosts websites includes free email boxes. Why people don’t take advantage of this is one of the mysteries of the Internet. It’s different, of course, if you’re an employee of a corporation or organization. In that case you should use a personal email address for personal correspondence.

Use a signature. All email software programs enable you to put in a signature or contact information automatically when you begin a message. It’s a mystery why everybody doesn’t do this, just as it’s amazing that people don’t use their website for their email. You can even use different identities, for example, one as the head of your business, and the other showing you as a member of a non-profit board. Sometimes your message will result in a return phone call for clarification. Unless your contact information is there, you’re forcing the recipient to look up your phone number. If nothing else, a signature line with contact information is a simple courtesy. Not only do you make life easier on your recipient, but a signature also provides you with a valuable branding opportunity: to let people know who you are. In any email program, instructions on how to add a signature are usually found in preferences or options. Every time you send an email it becomes a marketing opportunity. It’s simple. Just do it.

Make nice. Email has become such a dominant part of everyday communication that obeying the rules of email etiquette simply makes sense. An excellent and well-titled book on the subject is called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 2007).

 

Email Marketing

It’s just good business to send regular messages to your email list. It may be an alert about your latest blog post, or that a new issue of your company newsletter is available on your website. Often, you will want to send a “blast” email to alert your list that you’ve just rolled out a new product or service.

Email marketing services such as Constant Contact, Mailchimp, or Robly do most of the work for you. If you send regular email alerts, you should definitely consider one of these third party providers. They know the ropes and make life easier.

 

Caution – People on Your List Should Have “Opted in”

In the “old days,” you could buy or rent a commercial mailing list of targeted prospects. Indeed, you can still do this today with regular mail. But you can’t just go out and buy or rent an email list (although it’s done). Email is now controlled by the Federal Anti-Spam Law, also known as the Can Spam law.

Spam is unsolicited email, also known as junk email.

The law doesn’t allow false header information, such as a fictitious sender or where the communication originated. Deceptive subject lines are prohibited, and you must state if your email is an advertisement. The law also requires that you provide your physical address or post office box that is registered on the email communication. You must also provide a simple “opt out” link to enable the recipient to let you know he doesn’t want to be on your list anymore. you have 10 days to delete them from your list.

The penalty for violating the Can Spam law can be stiff, as much as $16,000 per offense. It’s best to use a third party mailer such as Constant Contact, which partially insulates you. But Constant Contact will drop you for repeat violations. Email is a gift from the gods of technology. Don’t blow it.

Should you hire a freelance copywriter?

To answer that question you should first ask yourself if you have the talent in-house to write your company communications. Chances are you don’t.

The American College Board did a study in 2004, updated in 2013, of 120 major corporations in the Business Roundtable. The response rate was a hefty 53.3 percent. These companies employ over four million workers.

Take a sip of water. The study found that over one third, that’s about 1.33 million employees, are deficient in writing skills. More than 40 percent of the firms surveyed say they offer or require remedial writing courses for their employees. One respondent estimated that his company sends 200 to 300 employees annually for remedial writing training. This translates into an enormous amount of money wasted by American corporations. The study, which was headed up by former Senator Bob Kerry, also found that the price tag for poor writing is about $3.1 billion dollars a year. It costs $3,000 per employee just for remedial writing training. That American schools are screwing things up is the subject of another White Paper.

If you have a talented writer on staff, you should then question whether you can afford to divert that employee from other duties to take on writing projects. For example, a skilled programmer from the IT department has to set her work aside to tackle a writing assignment. Who does her job while she’s writing?

Writing is a craft, a specialized set of skills. A professional writer knows that writing means more than a sentence with correct grammar, although that’s essential. It means more than correct spelling and punctuation, although they’re necessary too. A writer knows that writing means communicating a message, telling a story. What is a press release? It’s a story. What’s a letter to customers or clients? It’s a story. What is a business plan? It’s a story. How about a web page? It’s a story.

The written communications between your organization and the world positions you as a serious company to do business with, or a slap-dash outfit that pays little attention to what it’s saying. It’s a crucial element of everything you do.

 

Copyright © 2014  by Russell F. Moran – All Rights Reserved

A limited license is hereby given to make copies of this White Paper for others, provided that the above copyright notice and the words below appear in text.

Moran Communications, Inc. – The Write Stuff

www.morancom.com

Contact, russ@morancom.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fuggeddaboutit – The Disappearing New York Accent

A Sign on the Belt Parkway

A Regional Dialect is Changing

The New York accent, sometimes called the Brooklyn accent or Brooklynese, is fast melding into a general American accent. We are even starting to pronounce our Rs. New Yawk is becoming, well, New York. Linguists will wrestle with this subject for years, but I blame it on television. We are all starting to talk like anchor people, with that indistinguishable American way of speaking. Our regional dialects are being replaced by Matt Lauer and all of the Midwestern sounding folks on the evening news.

I grew up in New York City. My father immigrated from Ireland and my mother’s parents were German and Irish. Ours was not a household of heavy New York accents, although I’m sure you can tell I’m from New York. I was always taught to pronounce my Rs and would get a fierce look if I tawked like a Bowery Boy.

There are pockets of resistance among New Yorkers against the assault on their native dialect. Congressman Cholly (Charlie) Rangel is a case in point. And then there is a legion of New Yorkers who are schooled in New Yawk Tawk. New York City police officers, before they graduate from the police academy, are sent to a secret undisclosed location where they are taught to speak like cops. They are instructed to say things like “alleged poipetrata,” and “Putcha hands on the car and spredga legs.”

Tawking like a New Yawka crosses all ethnic and educational levels. The Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman spoke with a charming New York accent, as many the world over saw in his televised testimony about the Challenger disaster.

The old New York accent has a strong pull even on those from other places. The great baseball manager Casey Stengel (“Don’t nobody here know how to play this game?”) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Perhaps his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers left an indelible New York lilt to his speech. Yogi Berra (“It ain’t ova till it’s ova”) was born in St Louis, Missouri. He joined the New York Yankees at the age of 21, and his accent never looked back.

New Yawk Tawk

How Old is a Yoot?

A New York Accent Lexicon

Today, the New York accent still exists, but in a watered down version. The old New York accent was almost a separate dialect, and a non New Yorker would benefit from an interpreter. The following is a glossary of great old New York words and their pronunciations.

Auffissa – A cop. This is the terminology of choice when trying to talk yourself out of a ticket.

Cudga, Could you, as in “Cudga hand me that do-hickey.”

Do-hickey – See thingamajig.

Erl – oil.

Fadda. Father. Actor Tony Curtis, born in the Bronx, is reputed to have said in the movie The Prince Who Was a Thief, “Yonda lies the castle of my fadda.” See mudda.

Fuggeddaboutit. Forget about it. The word doesn’t really mean “forget about it.” As used in New York it means: “Boy, you can say that again,” or “I completely agree.” It can also be used as an expression of delight, as when your spouse gives you a new Ipad, or of dismay, when you drop your new Ipad on a concrete patio. Fuggeddaboutit.

Haya Doin – Hello or How are you doing. An answer is neither expected nor desired. The only proper response to ‘Haya doin?” is “Haya doin?”

I’m outa here. Good bye.

Jete? Nope. Ju? – “Did you eat?” “No, did you?”

Joisy – New Jersey.

Lawn Guyland – Long Island. Although the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are a geographic part of Long Island, proper New York usage dictates that Long Island refers only to the two eastern counties of Nassau and Suffolk. Go figga.

Mudda. Mother. See fadda.

Paypa – Paper, as in terlet paypa.

Pernt – Point. College Point in Queens is affectionately known as “de Pernt.”

Sapnin – “What’s happening?” See Haya doin.

Terlet – A toilet. Never pour erl in the terlet.

Thingamajig – A device of some sort, also known as a do-hickey.

The City – The borough of Manhattan. If you are from one of the other four boroughs, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island, when you go to “the City” you are going to Manhattan, even though the other boroughs are all part of New York City.

The Bronx – Never Bronx. The Bronx is one of few locations anywhere that gets an article in front of its name. Oral history has it that the Bronx was once populated by the family of the Jacob Bronck estate. When one went there it was to visit the Broncks.

Watchamacallit – “What do you call that thing?” Some old New Yorkers liberally sprinkle their conversations with watchamcallit for no apparent reason, as in: “It’s a nice, watchamacallit, day.” In such usage the word watchamacallit loses any meaning and becomes a verbal pause like a comma.

Wherezat. Where is that? Alternate usage is “wherezat at?”

Yannah. Your honor. This is how Brooklyn lawyers address judges.

Yoot or Yute. A youth. Think Joe Pesci in My CousinVinny.

These examples are just a few of the wonderful ways New Yorkers communicate. The next time I have a beer with a cop, I shall add to the list.

Other Regional Dialects

New York isn’t the only place with a distinctive dialect. I used to live in Chicago (Chicagga). My favorite Chicagoism was the “funchrum.” Many private residences across the city were built with a separate room in the front of the house, a front room. Somehow the front room became the funchrum. If you want to hitch a ride from someone you don’t ask if you can come along, you say: “Take with.” And, of course, you root for da Bearss.

The south, of course, has a wonderful patois. A southerner can turn a one syllable word into two, as in “gree-its” (grits), or “Hey Bubbah, watch ee-is (this). The southern use of metaphor turns the language into sharp imagery. “I druther kiss a copperhead than watch the Yankees beat the Braves.”

The midwest is known for curious language idiosyncrasies. Michigan, for example, has different names for people depending on what part of the state they are from. Yoopers are from the upper peninsula and trolls are from the lower peninsula. A fellow writer on these pages has penned an excellent article on the Michigan accent.

The New England accent makes you yearn for lobsta chowda. How do you get theah from heah? A New Englander never parks a car, he “pahks the cah.” Life is never hard but hahd. From Maine to Rhode Island the New England accent lives on, but it too is becoming less distinct as the years go by.

America is a wonderful tapestry of regional language eccentricities. We used to be able to tell what region a person hailed from just by his or her accent, and, with practice, what part of a state. I fear that we are all starting to sound like the folks on the Six O’clock News.

Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran

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Kirkus Reviews – Justice in America: How it Works – How it Fails

The following review of my book, Justice in America: How it Works – How it Fails, is from Kirkus Reviews, an independent book review company from Austin, Texas.  It has also been reviewed quite favorably by many readers.

The goddess of justice is blind—and deaf and very often dumb—according to this savvy critique of the American legal system. Moran, a lawyer, journalist and founding editor of The New York Jury Verdict Reporter, knows firsthand the problems that plague American jurisprudence, and isn’t afraid to point fingers. Topping his rogue’s gallery  are “incompetent idiots” on the bench, including justices of the peace who don’t even need a high-school diploma to throw people in jail and trial judges who fall asleep during testimony. (And no, that won’t get your conviction overturned, Moran notes, unless you can prove the judge slept through something important.) Then there are the personal injury lawyers who cast about for deep pockets to sue no matter how dubious the liability, the attorneys who rake in millions from class-action suits that net their “clients” a few dollars each, the jurors—like Moran’s uncle—who base verdicts on off-the-wall theories instead of the evidence, the legislators who craft stupid laws and Supreme Court justices who uphold them based on tortured readings of the Interstate Commerce Clause. (Not always in contempt of court, Moran does allow that, often enough, judges are underpaid and conscientious, lawyers careful and upright and malpractice suits well-founded.) The author sets his indictment against a lucid outline of basic legal concepts and court procedures and nuanced discussions of everything from the propriety of electing judges to the mortgage-foreclosure robo-signing scandals. Moran writes in an entertaining, wised-up style, his punchy prose laced with black humor and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes. His free-wheeling arguments shade from law into politics and beyond, as he enters a sweeping condemnation of a litigious society bound up in red tape because of liability fears, takes swipes at the New Deal regulatory state and even throws soup at snooty French waiters. It’s a bit over-stuffed, but Moran’s street-cred, irreverent wit and gift for translating legal arcana into laymen’s terms make for a persuasive brief. A lively, brash, illuminating insider’s look at the law, by a compelling expert witness.

indie@kirkusreviews.com

 

 

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The United States Constitution – A Primer

Don’t be intimidated when you read about a case that involves constitutional law. Yes, constitutional law can be very complex, but the basic principles aren’t.

Cases involving the United States Constitution and books written about them can take up half a library. This article is intended to be a brief primer for the layperson to understand the basic concepts about constitutional law that we read about in the newspapers every day.

Here are some basic things that any citizen should know about the Constitution:

· The United States Constitution is the basis for our entire system of law. It adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was ratified the following year.

· The original unamended Constitution is only 4,345 words in length. It is theoldest and shortest written constitution of any major government in the world.

Judicial Review – A Basic Doctrine

The case of Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review; that is, the principle that courts can determine whether a law is constitutional. The Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court has the final say. The case involved a simple matter. Marbury was appointed to the office of Justice of the Peace by President John Adams, but his actual written commission was not delivered. He petitioned the Supreme Court to order Madison, the Secretary of State, to deliver the document, pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1789. The court refused, holding that the act was unconstitutional because it gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction that was not provided for in the Constitution. This was the first time that the Supreme Court held a congressional act unconstitutional, and gave birth to the doctrine of judicial review.

· When judges are faced with a constitutional question, they are bound byprecedent, also known as stare decisis , which means simply that settled matters should not be disturbed. Courts make their decisions based on prior decisions, and they can vary from those decisions only if they can find a distinction between those earlier cases and the case before the court. The only other way the Supreme Court can go against prior decision is to reverse that earlier ruling. This was done in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the school desegregation case. The Supreme Court reversed its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) finding that the Plessy court’s holding of “separate but equal” violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 

 

James Madison – Father of the Bill of Rights

The First Ten Amendments – The Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are also known as theBill of Rights. The bill of rights was passed by Congress September 25, 1789 and was ratified December 15, 1791.

The Second Amendment. Pick up a newspaper and chances are that you will see the Second Amendment referred to in an article on the first page. The amendment provides “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Does it only involve militias? Is the right to bear arms absolute? The debate goes on.

· The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed that the rights contained in the Constitution applied to the states as well as to the federal government. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states: “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments are basically identical. The Fifth Amendment states: “[N]or shall any person . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Fourteenth Amendment provides: “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” A cop can’t just grab you by the scruff of the neck and throw you in jail. He must read you your rights and advise you that you have the right to talk to an attorney. You will then be arraigned before a judge who will read the charge against you and ask how you wish to plead. This stuff is what due process is all about.·

Enumerated Powers – The Federal System

The power of the federal government is not unlimited. The framers granted to the federal government specific enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8. The framers basically said “Okay Fed, here’s what you can do,” and in the Tenth Amendment they gave further emphasis to the federal system: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The Interstate Commerce Clause has become one of the most important clauses in the Constitution, and one of the most controversial (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3). This clause granted to congress, among other things, the right to “regulate Commerce…among the several states.” This clause has been used to expand the power of the federal government. In its decision on the Affordable Health Care Law on June 28,2012, the Supreme Court held that the individual mandate that forced people to purchase health insurance was unconstitutional under the commerce clause. However, the Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts as the swing vote, found that the law was constitutional under the first clause of the enumerated powers, “the power to lay and collect taxes.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1). This decision is controversial to say the least. Books, treatises and law review articles about this case will stretch years into the future, so no thorough analysis will be presented here. The most important thing to recognize, for the purpose of this article, is that the commerce clause has been restrained, and it does not mean that congress can do whatever it wants. Some will disagree with that last sentence.

Books on the Constitution

The Basic Test of Constitutionality

If a case is about a fundamental constitutional right and it involves a“suspect classification” such as race or national origin, the court will apply the test of “strict scrutiny.”This means that the law will be upheld only if it there was a “compelling state interest.” If a case does not involve a suspect classification leading to strict scrutiny, the court will question only whether the legislature had a mere“rational basis” for writing the law.

This article only covers a few of the basics. We should all be familiar with the United States Constitution and how it affects us. A number of organizations have published booklets that contain the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence. Some of them are: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College and young America’s Foundation. The booklets fit right in your pocket or purse. It’s a good thing to carry around. A useful website that is great for Constitutional trivia buffs is www.constitutionfacts.com.

Russ Moran, the writer of this article, is also the author of the book Justice in America: How it Works – How it Fails.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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Artificial Intelligence and Automatic Writing

Can this machine write an article without you?

Automatic Writing – The New Face of Journalism

There is a specter haunting the world of writers – the specter of automatic writing. That’s right, an article or report generated by a computer algorithm without human input. An algorithm is a “step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer.” This is a natural outgrowth of the science of Artificial Intelligence. So new is this topic of automatic writing that there are very few Google or Bing searches on the subject. People are only gradually becoming aware of it. This will change soon, because automatic writing will revolutionize journalism, not to mention freelance writing. And it will happen quickly.

How’s this for a snappy piece of sports writing?

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 .” As with many sports columns, the article, asdiscussed in The New York Times, was written 60 seconds after the end of the game. So what? Why am I telling you this? Well, the article was written by a computer. Yes, computer generated writing is here, and it’s not going away.

As a writer I think I hate this development. Writers, especially freelance writers, are a worrisome crowd. They have to find the next assignment, create a story line, meet a deadline, and oh yes, pay the bills. I hate to give writers something else to worry about, but facing reality is always a healthy thing. Yes, a lot of the staple subjects of article writing will soon migrate to computer algorithms. Full disclosure – I wrote this article myself. I used a computer, but the computer didn’t write it. I will also write any future updates to this article. Maybe.

Article spinning is a type of automatic writing using rudimentary artificial intelligence algorithms. Article spinning means taking an article, putting it through spinning software, and voila – out comes an article that has changed the words with synonyms so as not to engage the wrath of the Google prohibition against searchable duplicate content. Unless the article involves a simple subject in simple language, the outcome can look like yesterday’s corn beef hash.

The Beginnings of Automatic Writing

Automated systems have changed the way we do things since the invention of the printing press. and now, the act of writing itself is becoming automated. Narrative Science, a start-up company in Chicago, is using artificial intelligence to generate articles. The company formerly launched in 2010. It began in Evanston, Illinois as a joint research project with the Northwestern University Schools of Journalism and Engineering. The three founders were Stuart Frankel, CEO, formerly with Doubleclick; Kris Hammond. Chief Technology Officer and professor of Computer Science and Journalism at Northwestern University and the founder of the University of Chicago’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Larry Birnbaum, Chief Scientific Advisor and professor of Computer Science and Journalism at Northwestern. For an interesting description of this development, see: ”Steve Lohr, “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column,” NY Times, September 10, 2011.

This new company is rewriting the history of journalism. The basic idea of computer generated writing is simple. First, develop a huge database of information on a subject using data mining techniques. Sports and finance are natural areas of inquiry because any discussion of either subject requires a lot of numbers, people, comparisons and history. Once the database is built, then write an algorithm to go in and extract data and put it into intelligible narratives. Using baseball as an example, the algorithm is taught to understand that the most runs scored wins, that an inning is over after three outs and all of the other rules that run the game. Set loose on the huge database, the algorithm soon is able to figure out that batter X has only a 10 percent chance of getting a hit off of pitcher Y, based on the historical information in the database. The algorithm also learns the lingo of the game, so that when it generates a report it says things like Jones “smashed one” over the left field wall, or that a batter was “thrown out looking.” And what’s most shocking is that the algorithm and its pal the database can generate a story within seconds of the end of a game, with journalistic grace and incredible accuracy.

The world of finance, awash in facts and figures, is also fertile ground for automatic writing. A report, written for a business magazine, may read: “XYZ Corp.’s last quarter was a bitter disappointment, with revenues off of its previously stellar chart climbing stats, and profits are also in the tank. Investors will head for the exit door.”

How Automatic Writing Will Change Journalism

Technical writer Steven Levy, writing for Wired Magazine, has penned an excellent article on automatic writing and the future of journalism entitled: “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?” He discusses how the programmers are learning how to make the algorithm figure out things faster. Writing restaurant reviews, for example, requires that the algorithm look at the database of restaurant information and zero in on certain critical metrics like high review scores, good service, good food and a couple of customer reviews. Within hours, according to Levy, the database could crank out pithy little articles like “The Best Italian Restaurants in Atlanta” or “Great Sushi in Milwaukee.” Does this remind you of a HubPages article or a Textbroker assignment? Levy talks about a competitor of Narrative Science that began as a company known as Statsheet, which concentrated on reporting sports contests. As the excitement unfolded, the company founder changed its name to Automated Insights. Levy quotes Robbie Allen, the founder, about its previous thinking that the company would limit its mission to data-rich industries: “Now I think ultimately the sky is the limit.” When interviewing Kris Hammond, the Chief Technology Officer of Narrative Science, Levy asked him what percentage of news articles would be written by computers in 15 years. Hammonds answer may send shivers into the spines of writers. Hammond said “More than 90 percent.” Are the reports accurate? Levy talked to Lewis Dvorkin, Forbes Media chief products officer , and asked about the accuracy of the computer generated articles from Narrative Science. Although reporters are known to get things wrong, he did not find one instance of an error in any Narrative Science articles. Algorithms don’t miss things. Jeopardy fans the world over looked with nervousness as an IBM computer named Watson (after IBM’s founder) took on two previous Jeopardy champions in February 2011. Watson won hands down and sent the two champs packing. Artificial intelligence had hit prime time.

Breakthroughs have a way of expanding and changing things. In the early 1980’s the primordial jungle of the computer revolution, we were amazed at how you could highlight a paragraph or word then copy or cut and paste it. The early PC enabled us to do more with what we had. Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, goes beyond what we have. For looking up data, correlating it and making relevant conclusions, we can’t compete with algorithms.

Should Writers Be Worried?

Ayn Rand once famously said: “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” Some who may be reading this article may think that the province of writers is safe, that a computer program, no matter how sophisticated its algorithm, can never replace the analysis that a human being can bring to bear on an issue. What about the article that you are reading right now? I have looked at the reports of the amazing new companies on the scene, I have selected a few telling quotes, and I have given it my analysis, which is what I am doing right now in this paragraph. But suppose the Narrative Science people put all of the data they have and that which they can get their hands on into a database devoted to the subject of artificial intelligence as it applies to automatic writing. Do you think their algorithm would not alight upon the quotes with the predictions of automatic writing being responsible for as much of 90 percent of articles in a few years? Do you think that the algorithm can’t look at the numbers and make mathematical projections far better than me? Yes, I do think writers have something to worry about, unless they write strictly for pleasure. Are only nonfiction article writers at risk? A computer program can be stuffed with basic plots and characters, and the algorithm can pick and choose, just like a writer does, and come up with a novel. I have favorite novelists who I read not because I like them, but because I like their writing. Show me an algorithm that can weave a good plot with exciting characters who say compelling and funny things, and I will send him (it?) fan mail.

Will a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize? Narrative Science’s Kris Hammond thinks so. He referred to a pundit’s prediction that a computer will win the Pulitzer in 20 years, and disagreed. Hammond thinks a computer program will win the Pulitzer Prize in five years (that would be 2016).

What’s a writer to make of this? Do you think a computer could write a sentence like an Ernest Hemmingway, a George Will, a Tom Wolfe or a Joan Didion? I, for one, can’t conceive of this. But then I thought the idea of an online auction site (Ebay) was dumb, and that nothing could replace the keyboard and mouse. So I’m not making any predictions. I’m just contemplating how one sends a note of congratulations to a computer that just won the Pulitzer.

Will computers and their algorithms ever form principled opinions and share them with us? Just ask Hal, the spacecraft computer in Kubrick’s movie 2001(in 1969): “I’m concerned about the mission Dave.”

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

 

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The Plausible Impossible in Fiction Writing

Good fiction writing means crafting a good story. It doesn’t mean that the story should be grounded in reality, only that it be internally consistent. A good plot with believable characters who have conversations that make sense are elements of a good story, even if the story is located on a planet light years from earth.

Internal consistency is essential to a good story. The story may be a fantasy, a horror tale including monsters and wild scenes, or a time travelling journey to strange lands. But the reader expects that the tale should unfold in a way that is, well, believable.

“The Plausible Impossible” was Walt Disney’s way of putting it. There was even an episode of the DisneylandTV series devoted to the subject. Something may be impossible, as when the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons walks off the edge of a cliff, stands there, and then looks down to realize there’s nothing under him. But that’s okay, he eventually falls. If, instead of falling down the character fell up, that would be implausible. We know that nobody, including the Coyote, can stand in space. That’s impossible. But we suspend our belief and are entertained by the story because he plausibly falls down. The Coyote and the Road Runner weren’t Disney characters, but the Coyote did have a way of walking off cliffs. Another example of this plausibly impossible action was the famous scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Bob Hoskins steps off a cliff, and, Coyote-like, he is suspended there. As he falls, he reaches up and grabs a tire, which had hung there. He is saved because he lands in the hands of a cartoon character. Impossible, yes, but entirely plausible.Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great fun story. It’s about people who rub elbows with cartoon characters known as “Toons.” Completely impossible. Completely plausible.

Some of the greatest novels – look no further than those penned by Stephen King – involve impossible plots, scenes and dialog. No angry girl named Carrie can really heap mayhem on her enemies by telekinesis. That’s impossible. But King makes it entirely plausible because he, the author, gives his character this amazing power. Once he’s done that he honors his readers by making all of the scenes plausible, once the basic premise – telekinesis – is in the book.

Possible But Implausible

A writer can also let down the reader with a scene that may be possible, but lacks plausibility. And this isn’t only for science fiction genres. Suppose the heroine of a novel is very much in love with her handsome husband. We know this because of the scenes and dialog, and a bit of backstory worked in. Now suppose that our heroine runs off with a scruffy poor elderly man. We are given no reason, she just does. It’s never set up or explained, it just happens. Of course it’s possible for the heroine to run off with the old guy, but it’s entirely implausible.

A recent movie, Battleship, was a fun story but let’s you down at the end because of an implausible event. The movie is all about a bunch of alien invaders who land gigantic machines in the ocean and raise havoc with their terrible weapons. So far so good – hey, it’s science fiction. But at the end of the movie, the good guys take a battleship, which had been turned into a museum, and attack the evil aliens with it. The ship is run by a bunch of patriotic old geezers who once served on the ship. Excuse me. You can’t just fire up a mothballed museum and take it to sea. And why was the ship armed with live weapons? An implausible letdown.

It’s All About Treating the Reader with Respect

Fantasy, horror, weirdness and mayhem are the stuff of great stories. The stories may be completely impossible, but that’s fine. They have to be plausible, and keep to the logic of the story itself. I’m not suggesting that fiction should hone to reality. That’s no fun. But the writer has an obligation to be consistent with the plot and not to treat the reader like a jerk.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

 

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