Terry Zink's Cyber Security Blog

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

My writing skills need improvement. Seriously.

My writing skills need improvement. Seriously.

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Ever since I published my first post on evaluating talent  a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about how to apply it to my own life.  The only way to get good at anything – seriously good – is through deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is working on specific skills and getting feedback.

I decided that I wanted to become a better writer.  I did a search on the Internet for how to become a better writer, but the pages that I found were not very useful.  Most of the advice was “Write a lot” and “Read a lot.”  There wasn’t much on how to form sentences, be clear or use proper grammar.  Finally, I found one helpful hint – read the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinssner. 

I took it out from the library and started reading it.  I didn’t get more than 20 pages in when I started groaning.  I have many terrible writing habits!  Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?  Here are some examples:

  • The first two chapters of the book are about simplicity and clutter.  I use lots and lots of unnecessary words.  Did you see that just now?  I said “lots and lots”.  What value does the second “and lots” add?  None, really.  Argh!  I did it again by adding the word “really”!  Reducing clutter is important to good writing style.  Cut things and minimize so as not to add unnecessary words.  I frequently use phrases like “I might add”, “it should be pointed out”, “it is interesting to note”, and so forth.  If it’s interesting to note, then note it.  If I might add it, then add it.  I need to stop adding redundant words.

  • I use hedge words far too much.  I went back over some of my previous blog posts and some of them are actually written rather well.  The two hedge words in that sentence are “actually” and “rather”.  I hedge a lot in my writings (especially this blog) and that’s not good style.  Speaking of style, one thing I have to start doing more is being definitive in stating my opinion.  When I write, the reader knows that I am stating my opinion.  There is no need to hedge it with “IMO” or “IMHO”.  The very fact that this is a blog, by definition, means it is an opinion.

  • While the above two are things that I have been doing for years, one bad habit I have picked up at Microsoft is using “jargonese”.  This is using one set of terms in a novel way when an existing set of words would have done perfectly fine and needed no redefinition.  Consider the following hypothetical paragraph:
    We were working on a new feature and reached out to a customer for their for input.  When they sent their feedback, it was late in the development cycle so we escalated up the management chain to incorporate their ask.
    If you work at Microsoft, you are probably looking at that paragraph and see nothing wrong with it (chances are that if you work in a large organization anywhere you are thinking the same thing).  It is a completely normal and natural way to express things in the culture where I work.  But there are at least six things wrong with it:

    1. The phrase reach out means to reach out with your arm and try to grab something.

    2. Input is data that you put into a computer.

    3. Feedback is a term in electrical engineering referring to the signals that are generated and fed back into the circuit.

    4. The term escalate became popular during the Vietnam War and refers to the United States’ significantly increasing its involvement, but the term also carries an undertone of blunder.

    5. The terms management chain puts two nouns next to each other, why not use the term management?

    6. The word ask is a verb, not a noun.

    Each of these are correct in the context where they appear, but I don’t want to give input and get feedback.  though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and see what people think of them.  It’s the difference between jargon and usage.  Here’s how I would rephrase the above paragraph:
    We were working on a new feature and asked a customer to tell us what they thought of it.  When they finally responded to us, it was late in the development cycle so we asked our management if we could include their request.
    You tell me – which sounds better and is more clear?

The good news in all of this is that I do a number of things well – my grammar is usually correct (when there are errors it is because I have typed too quickly and have not proofread before I posted), I have my own particular tone of writing (conversational) and I write frequently.  I write about the things I like to write about and I try to have coherent unity in most of my posts.

So you see, there’s hope for me yet.

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  • MicrosSpeak, as Raymond Chen calls it, is infectious and most MS employees that work at the Redmond campus have been infected.  The most-used word in any given Channel 9 video has to be "so"!  How many sentences do you start with "so"? <jk>

  • In the interest of a little meta-humor, consider the following:

    >Cut things and minimize so as not to add unnecessary words.

    vs.

    Cut things to avoid unnecessary words.

    (also, bug report: hitting CTRL+Z inside this textbox causes wacky behavior on IE9 w/ Win7 32-bit)

  • Good one, Z.

  • Touché, Microspeak.

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