Open Books

by Assisted Living

Each of us belongs to larger groups or systems that have some investment in our staying exactly the same as we are now. If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or vagueness or ineffective fighting and blaming, we will inevitably meet with a strong resistance or countermove. This “Change back!” reaction will come both from inside our own selves and from significant others around us. We will see how it is those closest to us who often have the greatest investment in our staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes that we seek. This resistance to change, like the will to change, is a natural and universal aspect of all human systems.

(From Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger pgs. 14-15)

8 Writing Lessons from the FLOTUS

“How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

Lesson four: Unleash the power of three. Notice how often the speaker relies upon a pattern of three to make her point. This is one of the oldest tricks in the orator’s book. In literature, three is always the largest number. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know.

“Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Lesson five: Express your best thought in a short sentence. This is one of the best lines in the speech for a number of reasons. It’s a short sentence, only seven words. Each word is a single syllable. There is parallelism between “they go low” and “we go high,” emphasized by the repetition of the word “go.” The sentence is complex, that is, it begins with a subordinate clause “When they go low,” which describes the opponent’s weak move, followed by a main clause that gives greater weight to the speaker’s values.

“Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?”

Lesson six: Find a focus. Stick with it. In the story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the winner of the town’s annual lottery gets stoned to death. It is a surprise ending, but there are several mentions of the word ‘stones’ as foreshadowing — never “rocks.”

If I had to choose one word to describe the speech, it would be “kids.” It is repeated five times on a single page. She also uses words like children, sons and daughters, but the informality of kids draws you in: “So, how are the kids?” There is a significant literature in African-American culture about the issue, the problem, the glory of hair. Of “good” hair, and “bad” hair. It feels almost daring for Michelle Obama to refer to this incident, to turn a taboo into a parable and a blessing.

See Roy Peter Clark’s full piece at Poynter here.

See Mrs. Obama’s speech here or below.

Thanks, Ed!

Being Present

In an opinion piece about not being alone, Johnathan Foer writes about the diminished substitutes we’ve accepted and become with the progression of technology in communication:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

You can find the full piece at the NYT here.

Why Should It Mean So Much

Dag Hammarskjold, a twentieth-century diplomat, advisor, and leader is a companion of mine (through the text).  I read selections from his Markings from time to time.  They are poems, reflections, meditations, and musings.  Last night I read a few.  Here’s one from 1952 that seems compelling to me today:

How ridiculous, this need of yours to communicate!  Why should it mean so much to you that at least one person has seen the inside of your life?  Why should you write down all this, for yourself, to be sure–perhaps, though, for others as well?

I’m in the middle of revising another draft of my manuscript.  I’m walking through some thoughtful edits from Maya Rock, and the walk is both enlivening and humbling.

I’ve been sick for more than two weeks thanks to my generous son.  I’m still a little congested, in the head especially, and I mean that, at least, in two ways.  But Hammarskjold’s words come alongside me as I’m reading my edits, adding and cutting and thinking and shaking my head at some of the assumptions I make in my story.

I’m considering my draft in light of his reflection.  How he says writing, or communicating, allows a person to see the inside of your life.  How communication is for others.  It really takes me out of my head, where all the assumptions are, where all the answers are, and delivers them onto the page, into the conversation, in the space where communication happens between two people.

10 Steps To Better Emails

This list is from Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner.  I have used several of these regularly in the past, but I can probably add a few into my practice.  What about you?

10 Steps to Writing Better Emails

1. Keep it brief.

Many people recommend the three-sentence rule: If you can say what you need to in 3 sentences or less, do it! If not, keep it as close to 3 sentences as possible. If you have something in-depth that will take several paragraphs, consider talking to the person instead. You know, talking. Like they used to do in the old days.

2. Pause before hitting Send.

Is it completely necessary? Does it have to go NOW? If it can possibly wait, then use the DRAFT function of your email program to save it. Once a week, pull up all your drafts and only send the ones that are still necessary. This is especially handy if you tend to send several emails a week to one person. Can they be consolidated?

3. Get to the point.

Make it easy for the recipient to get the gist of your message right away. Don’t ramble.

4. Make questions and action points stand out.

DON’T bury your questions throughout the email in the middle of paragraphs! If there is action needed, or a question that needs an answer, make it VERY obvious. For example, you might want to number them and put them at the end of your email.

5. Use NNTR

I’ve started putting “NNTR” at the end of the subject line. It means No Need To Reply. This can save people lots of time and eliminate needless back-and-forth.

6. Use EOM

Another one of my favorites – I put “EOM” at the end of the subject line to indicate “End of Message.” That is, the entire message is in the subject line. So in responding to an email requesting a phone call, my subject line might say, “I’ll call you Tues 3/6 at 4pm eastern — EOM.” And the recipient doesn’t even need to open the email, they’ve got all the info they need.

7. Use a relevant subject line

Try NOT to use a generic subject line, such as “Thought you might want to know…” The subject line is for… wait for it… the actual subject of your email.

8. Change the subject line when necessary

If you’re emailing back and forth with someone, and the topic changes mid-conversation, change the subject line! This goes extra for those of you who never actually start a new email stream, but whenever you want to email someone, you simply grab the last email from them and hit “Reply.” Change the subject line, please.

9. DON’T use “Quick Question”  

Avoid that oldie-but-goodie in the subject line unless you want your recipient to shoot themselves. First, a quick question is never quick. Second, it’s generic and tells nothing. It’s much better for your subject line to say, “Question about why my agent never returns my emails.” At least that’s specific. And memorable.

10. Remember that every time you send an email, somewhere a fairy dies.

Well, maybe not. But it should at least make us think twice about it!

→ Bonus: What about saying “thank you”?

To read Rachelle’s entire post, click here.