Writing Advice

Why You Should Work Less and Spend More Time on Hobbies

11 February 2019

From The Harvard Business Review:

As professionals around the world feel increasingly pressed for time, they’re giving up on things that matter to them. A recent HBR article noted that in surveys, most people “could name several activities, such as pursuing a hobby, that they’d like to have time for.”

This is more significant than it may sound, because it isn’t just individuals who are missing out. When people don’t have time for hobbies, businesses pay a price. Hobbies can make workers substantially better at their jobs. I know this from personal experience. I’ve always loved playing the guitar and composing. But just like workers everywhere, I can fall into the trap of feeling that I have no time to engage in it. As head of demand generation for Nextiva, I have enough on my plate to keep me busy around the clock. I can easily fall into the trap of the “72-hour workweek,” which takes into account time people spend connected to work on our phones outside of official work hours.

When I crash, there’s always the temptation to do something sedentary and mindless. It’s little surprise that watching TV is by far the most popular use of leisure time in the U.S. and tops the list elsewhere as well, including Germany and England.

. . . .

Creativity. To stand out and compete in today’s crowded and constantly changing business environment, organizations need new, innovative ideas that will rise above the noise. I’m tasked with constantly looking for new ways to attract attention from potential buyers. But coming up with a fully original idea can be difficult when your mind is filled with targets, metrics, and deadlines.

A creative hobby pulls you out of all that. Whether you’re a musician, artist, writer, or cook, you often start with a blank canvas in your mind. You simply think: What will I create that will evoke the emotion I’m going for?

It’s no surprise that by giving yourself this mental space, and focusing on feelings, you can reawaken your creativity. Neuroscientists have found that rational thought and emotions involve different parts of the brain. For the floodgates of creativity to open, both must be in play.

. . . .

Confidence. When I face a tough challenge at work and feel stymied, I can start to question whether I’ll ever figure out a successful solution. It’s easy to lose creative confidence. But after an hour of shredding on the guitar, hitting notes perfectly, I’m feeling good. I can tell that my brain was craving that kind of satisfaction. And when I face that work project again, I bring the confidence with me.

It turns out people like me have been studied. In one study, researchers found that “creative activity was positively associated with recovery experiences (i.e., mastery, control, and relaxation) and performance‐related outcomes (i.e., job creativity and extra‐role behaviors).” In fact, they wrote, “Creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Why You Should Work Less and Spend More Time on Hobbies

9 February 2019

From The Harvard Business Review:

As professionals around the world feel increasingly pressed for time, they’re giving up on things that matter to them. A recent HBR article noted that in surveys, most people “could name several activities, such as pursuing a hobby, that they’d like to have time for.”

This is more significant than it may sound, because it isn’t just individuals who are missing out. When people don’t have time for hobbies, businesses pay a price. Hobbies can make workers substantially better at their jobs. I know this from personal experience. I’ve always loved playing the guitar and composing. But just like workers everywhere, I can fall into the trap of feeling that I have no time to engage in it.

. . . .

When I crash, there’s always the temptation to do something sedentary and mindless. It’s little surprise that watching TV is by far the most popular use of leisure time in the U.S. and tops the list elsewhere as well, including Germany and England.

But by spending time on music, I boost some of my most important workplace skills.

. . . .

[C]oming up with a fully original idea can be difficult when your mind is filled with targets, metrics, and deadlines.

A creative hobby pulls you out of all that. Whether you’re a musician, artist, writer, or cook, you often start with a blank canvas in your mind. You simply think: What will I create that will evoke the emotion I’m going for?

It’s no surprise that by giving yourself this mental space, and focusing on feelings, you can reawaken your creativity. Neuroscientists have found that rational thought and emotions involve different parts of the brain. For the floodgates of creativity to open, both must be in play.

. . . .

When I face a tough challenge at work and feel stymied, I can start to question whether I’ll ever figure out a successful solution. It’s easy to lose creative confidence. But after an hour of shredding on the guitar, hitting notes perfectly, I’m feeling good. I can tell that my brain was craving that kind of satisfaction. And when I face that work project again, I bring the confidence with me.

It turns out people like me have been studied. In one study, researchers found that “creative activity was positively associated with recovery experiences (i.e., mastery, control, and relaxation) and performance‐related outcomes (i.e., job creativity and extra‐role behaviors).” In fact, they wrote, “Creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”

So to my fellow professionals, I highly recommend taking some time to keep up your creative hobby. It doesn’t have to be long. A study found that spending 45 minutes making art helps boost someone’s confidence and ability to complete tasks.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Waldeinsamkeit

4 February 2019

From Atlas Obscura:

There’s a German word, waldeinsamkeit, that Google Translate (yeah, I’m that guy) puts in English as “Solitude of the Forest.” It’s meant to describe a singular type of loneliness that is at once isolating, peaceful, and reflective. And having a spot where you can go and indulge in a little waldeinsamkeit of your own can be a rewarding experience for everyone. Now we want to hear about the most incredible places where you go to be alone.

While waldeinsamkeit traditionally implies a dense, quiet wood, the emotional experience can happen just about anywhere. Maybe it’s a meaningful hideaway in your city or town that you like to keep all to yourself, or maybe it’s a bustling public square where you allow yourself to be alone in a crowd. Personally, I sometimes like to head to a place near our office called Transmitter Park. It’s right on the East River, and has a terrific view of Manhattan just across the water. It’s gotten much more crowded in recent years, but I still go there and tune out the world, just watching the water and meditating on the endless possibility of the big city, or whatever’s on my mind. It helps me feel like I’m both in the middle of the teeming city around me, and blissfully apart from it. Wherever it is that you like to explore the wonders of solitude, we want to hear about them.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

From Rosetta Stone:

Waldeinsamkeit roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude.

This word is about creating a connection with nature and cherishing one’s time spent alone in the woods. Waldeinsamkeit evokes feelings of contemplation, calm, and even meditation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled, Waldeinsamkeit.

I do not count the hours I spend
In wandering by the sea;
The forest is my loyal friend,
Like God it useth me.

In plains that room for shadows make
Of skirting hills to lie,
Bound in by streams which give and take
Their colours from the sky;

Or on the mountain-crest sublime,
Or down the oaken glade,
O what have I to do with time?
For this the day was made.

Cities of mortals woe begone
Fantastic care derides,
But in the serious landscape lone
Stern benefit abides.

Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy,
And merry is only a mask of sad,
But, sober on a fund of joy,
The woods at heart are glad.

There the great Planter plants
Of fruitful worlds the grain,
And with a million spells enchants
The souls that walk in pain.

Still on the seeds of all he made
The rose of beauty burns;
Through times that wear, and forms that fade,
Immortal youth returns.

The black ducks mounting from the lake,
The pigeon in the pines,
The bittern’s boom, a desert make
Which no false art refines.

Down in yon watery nook,
Where bearded mists divide,
The gray old gods whom Chaos knew,
The sires of Nature, hide.

Aloft, in secret veins of air,
Blows the sweet breath of song,
O, few to scale those uplands dare,
Though they to all belong!

See thou bring not to field or stone
The fancies found in books;
Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own,
To brave the landscape’s looks.

And if, amid this dear delight,
My thoughts did home rebound,
I well might reckon it a slight
To the high cheer I found.

Oblivion here thy wisdom is,
Thy thrift, the sleep of cares;
For a proud idleness like this
Crowns all thy mean affairs.

Should you, like PG, have no idea how to pronounce Waldeinsamkeit, here’s a link.

 

 

Three Writing Rules to Disregard

1 February 2019

From The Paris Review:

I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—­to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—­and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—­that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.

Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-­constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well ­constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.

A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)

. . . .

But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them.

. . . .

Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified.

. . . .

1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this essay, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more.

But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat:

An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think.

. . . .

2. Never Split an Infinitive.

To cite the most famous split infinitive of our era—­and everyone cites this bit from the original Star Trek TV series, so zero points to me for originality—­“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

There’s much more—­much more—­one could say on the subject, but I don’t want to write about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford any more than you want to read about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford, so let’s leave it at this: A split infinitive, as we generally understand the term, is a “to [verb]” construction with an adverb stuck in the middle of it. In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.

Otherwise, let’s skip right to Raymond Chandler. Again, as with the Star Trek phrase, everyone loves to cite Chandler on this subject, but it’s for a God damn [sic] good reason. Chandler sent this note to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in response to the copyediting of an article he’d written:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-­down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Hedonic Appeal of “Dreyer’s English”

30 January 2019

From The New Yorker:

Books about language usage, including “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss, and “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner, constitute a metaliterature, in which the writing must prove the writer’s qualifications to teach writing. The magician makes a magic show out of explaining his tricks. Sometimes, as with William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” the music of the prose is what recommends the volume long after many of its prescriptions have been discarded.

A new entrant in this genre, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” seems happily aware of its own planned obsolescence. The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the longtime copy chief at Random House. He grants that his rules are sometimes arbitrary (e.g., hyphenate “light-headed” but not “lighthearted”) and often fluid (although most sentences don’t benefit from the passive voice, he points out, some do). But he’s a true believer, full of passionate opinions about “actually” (never say it), house style (try not to have one “visible from space,” he advises this publication), and italics (unfortunately straining to the eye, and redolent of the sorts of interior monologues and dream sequences that readers are likely to skip). Dreyer himself is a charming, chatty narrator with a soft spot for both digressive footnotes and name-dropping. He dislikes scare quotes and lauds parentheses for their “conveyance of elbow-nudging joshingness.” He is just persnickety enough.Dreyer’s through line is that most rules have exceptions: “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think,” he finds. His book, which apotheosizes the case-by-case basis, compares the copy-editing process to “a really thorough teeth cleaning,” at the end of which the text reads “even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.” This is nice, but it is also a theremin-spooky late-capitalist metaphor. The copy editor performs service work for the writer by fine-tuning the writer’s personal voice or brand. The emphasis on grammar as a tool for self-expression, not just communication, feels evocative of an era in which online dogmatists periodically go scorched earth on punctuation marks or parts of speech that offend their sensibilities. (“The semicolon is pointless, and it’s ruining your writing,” one such piece asserted, setting off plumes of semicolons all over Twitter.)

. . . .

Wallace’s 2001 essay was premised on the notion that, after standard English was disgraced as a “shibboleth of the Establishment,” language snoots needed to come up with an entirely new reason for people to follow their rules. (It didn’t help, Wallace observed, that the old ways could be “archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass.”) A similar crisis of motivation might be said to haunt the language snobs of 2019. Perhaps we insist on usage norms to reclaim a lost sense of agency: These sentence fragments I have shored up against my ruin. But why insist on good manners when you can travel so far without them?

. . . .

Dreyer’s attention to gusto in language use is magical in a way that resists full explication. Like life, writing is an accumulation of choices, some deliberate but most only hazily understood. The language we handle moves under our touch. We feel around in it until a mysterious clicking starts, and then we wrestle the stuff into what we hope is proper grammar and wait for it to set. For Dreyer to wade into this process with news of pleasure is lovely.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

30 January 2019

PG did a strange thing a couple of days ago.

He purchased a hardcover book.

From a major New York publisher.

And he’s happy he did.

The book is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the “Copy Chief” of Random House. It turns out that he’s an engaging writer with less-than-draconian opinions about how best to express oneself in the language of Milton and Shakespeare.

A couple of excerpts:

Proofreading requires a good deal of attention and concentration, but it’s all very binary, very yes/no: Something is right or something is wrong, and if it’s wrong, you’re expected to notice it and, by way of yet more scrawling [on the manuscript], repair it. It’s like endlessly working through one of those spot-the-difference picture puzzles in an especially satanic issue of Highlights for Children.

and

Here’s your first challenge:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really quite
  • in fact

And you can toss in–or, that is, toss out–“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too).

Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.

And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.”

And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”

If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers–I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them: that would render most people, especially British people, mute–you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.

In addition to being, at least for PG, entertaining, the book is an illustration of the typesetter’s art when dealing with lots of non-standard sentence and paragraph structures.

Perhaps it’s because PG is returning to some of the earliest ebooks he formatted for Mrs. PG to update the “Other Books by Mrs. PG” sections and (courtesy of Jutoh) discovering some non-observance of formatting best practices (No fixed line spacing!), and correcting those to improve their electronic appearance, he finds the punctuation, spacing, etc., of Dreyer’s English informative.

As you observe in the excerpts above, Dreyer is anything but a subject-verb-object writer and PG finds himself paying attention to how what some of PG’s elementary school teachers would have marked as run-on sentences are handled. For instance, no space between the last/first character in a word and the beginning or end of an em dash.

“you can toss in–or, that is” instead of “you can toss in — or, that is”

And, speaking of em dashes, even using them instead of colons or parentheses is a good reminder for PG.

Most readers of TPV will undoubtedly be familiar with how to create an em dash in MS Word, but for those sprouts and shavers who are just showing up, you type two hyphens and a space and, as someone in Seattle decreed a long time ago, Word will convert the two hyphens into an em dash and deport the space to another dimension.

WordPress appears to do the same thing, at least for PG, without the need for a space following the two hyphens.

So (coming full-circle) for PG, reading a printed book feels a little like driving a 1957 Chevrolet–an entertaining change and a trip down memory lane–but an ebook and a Toyota are a better way to go.


‘Dreyer’s English’ Review: Flossing Your Prose

25 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, “ ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

. . . .Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Here’s a link to Dreyer’s English

Given that it was published by Random House, PG was pleasantly surprised at the price.

He Said, She Said: Why Guessing Gender Pronouns Is a Challenge for Tech Companies like Google

21 January 2019

From The Deseret News:

If you’re one of the 1.5 billion people who use Gmail, you might have noticed last year that your emails suddenly started writing themselves. But did you notice that the autocomplete feature never uses gendered pronouns like she/he or him/her?

In May, Google introduced Smart Compose, which helps users finish sentences. Another feature called Smart Reply generates quick, automatic responses to emails, including phrases like “No problem!” and “Unfortunately, I can’t make it.”

In November, Reuters reported that a Google researcher discovered the potential for bias when he typed “I am meeting an investor next week,” and Smart Compose suggested, “Do you want to meet him?” instead of “her,” according to Gmail product manager Paul Lambert.

As a result, Google decided Smart Compose and Smart Reply would not suggest gendered pronouns at all, Reuters reported.

. . . .

According to Nick Haynes, director of data science at Automated Insights, a company that specializes in natural language generation software, gender-pronoun correctness is a priority for tech companies because gender is such a big deal in today’s cultural climate.

“Despite the tremendous recent growth and hype around artificial intelligence (AI) applications, many people are understandably suspicious of AI,” said Haynes. “This makes the process of building trust with users a critical part of deploying an AI system, but misgendering a person can be a glaring mistake that can quickly erode a user’s trust in an entire product or company.”

Haynes said pronouns are tricky because the English language is often ambiguous when it comes to gender. Names like Taylor and Leslie can be unisex, whereas nouns like doctor or secretary often carry gendered connotations even though they’re not explicitly gendered, he said.

“Because AI is built and trained by humans, AI systems inherit the same challenges and biases in the use of language that its human creators and users experience,” said Haynes.

. . . .

Programs like Smart Compose are created with natural language generation, a method by which computers analyze the relationships between words in text written by humans and learn to write sentences of their own.

“The (process) successfully captures analogy relations, such as ‘Man is to king as woman is to queen.’ However, the same (process) also yields ‘Man is to doctor as woman is to nurse’ and ‘Man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker,'” said said Londa Schiebinger, professor of History of Science at Stanford University and author of a case study on gender and ethnic bias in machine learning algorithms. “Taking no action means that we may relive the 1950s indefinitely.”

. . . .

Agolo, a New York-based startup, uses artificial intelligence to summarize business documents. It is difficult for the company’s technology to reliably determine what pronoun goes with what name, said chief technology officer, Mohamed AlTantawy. To help with accuracy, company’s program pulls as much context from the document as possible.

“The rule here is if any task is intellectually hard for humans, it’s also hard to solve using AI,” said AlTantawy.

For example, take the sentence: “Andy and Alex met yesterday when she gave him the gift.”

“You have no way of knowing the gender of Andy or Alex,” said AlTantawy. “You would assume that Andy is a female because that name appeared first in the sentence.”

But additional context helps: “Andy and Alex met yesterday when she gave him the gift. Alex is a great mother.”

“Now this changed everything! It turns out that Alex is the female,” AlTantawy explained.

As another layer of fact-checking, Agolo also utilizes a database of known facts about companies that includes the headquarters, products and names and genders of prominent employees, AlTantawy said.

. . . .

Some autocomplete suggestions might not offend people but still have gender-related implications. In its iMessage application, Apple suggests “policemen” to complete “police” and “salesman” for “sales,” for example.

When you type the gender-neutral Korean sentence “Geubun-eun gyosu ibnida” into Google Translate, it gives you “He is a professor” in English. So does Microsoft’s translator app and Alibaba’s Language Service.

In December, Google published a press release that said the company was addressing gender bias by providing feminine and masculine translations for some gender-neutral words.

“Now you’ll get both a feminine and masculine translation for a single word — like ‘surgeon’ — when translating from English into French, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish. You’ll also get both translations when translating phrases and sentences from Turkish to English. For example, if you type ‘O bir doktor’ in Turkish, you’ll now get ‘She is a doctor’ and ‘He is a doctor’ as the gender-specific translations,” the statement reads.

Link to the rest at The Deseret News

Next Page »