The

Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England

Warning: today’s post may seem a bit esoteric. I think it’s pretty darn interesting, and I  know it has real-world implications for anyone trying to communicate anything, but if you want to cut to the chase you can always scroll down to the end.

What a difference a word makes!

I’m reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall is a massive historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who, as a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, helped usher in the English Reformation. Although I have my share of interest in history and read plenty of historical fiction as a kid, I rarely read it now. Why? Because I hate clumsy exposition. There is nothing so deflating as to be caught up in the middle of a fictional world, rooting for a character, crying over a sad turn of events, eager to see what happens next, only to be swiftly dumped back into the 21st century when the author stops to explain something. It’s even worse when that something is stuffed, with all the authenticity of a plastic pear, into a character’s mouth.

For example, I somehow missed the much-praised television series, West Wing, when it first aired. My 15-year-old daughter, a latter-day fan through the magic of Netflix, is now eagerly introducing me to what I missed. And, several “seasons” in, I’m very much enjoying it. But I squirmed through quite a few episodes before I got to this point.

Here’s why: West Wing, as you probably know, is about a fictional modern-day U.S. president and his closest staff. He’s got the kind of liberal politics that make it highly unlikely he’d ever have been elected in real life, and his ironclad integrity is even more unbelievable, but these stretches of reality are not what make me squirm. What drives me crazy is that at key points throughout nearly every episode a character will suddenly say something like, “What do you mean, the bill has to be voted on in both houses of Congress?” and another character will answer, “Well, every bill has to be passed in both the House and the Senate…blah, blah, blah.”

This is ridiculous. People who work at the White House don’t ask these questions of each other. Why? Because they work at the White House. They know the answers, and the writers know they know the answers, but they put those words in the characters’ mouths because they want to be sure you, the audience know the answers. And though dialogue like this does serve the function intended, it also yanks us viewers right out of our cozy involvement with the scene, back into our chairs in front of a television screen.

The fact is, the very best television (I’m speakin’ to you, The Wire) manages to avoid this kind of exposition. It does this in part by getting the message across much more subtly, in part by respecting the audience’s ability to catch on. The very best writing does, too.

Which brings me back to Wolf Hall. It’s not easy—at all—to create a work of fiction set in a time or place that’s unfamiliar to readers without inserting a lot of heavy-handed exposition. But Hilary Mantel manages to do it with an awe-inspiring grace.

In some cases, it comes down to one word.

On page 295 of my hard cover edition, a character tells Cromwell he is going to try for permission to visit “our brother Bainham.”

At this point, we’ve never heard of anyone named Bainham and need to be told who he is. A lesser author would come right out and do so (or, worse, have some minor character pipe up from across the room, “who’s Bainham?”) Mantel, writing in present tense as she does throughout the book, does this:

Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by [Sir Thomas] More last year and tortured.

(The brackets are mine—readers of the book know by this point who “More” refers to.)

What’s significant about this sentence is what Mantel could have said, instead:

Bainham is a barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured.

Had she done this, had she used “a” instead of “the,” she would have been talking directly to me, the reader. She would have been bypassing her characters completely and, in the process, lifting me right out of their world and setting me down, with a thud, in 2013. Because both the characters in the room know who Bainham is. They don’t need to know he is “a barrister, etc.”

But it is perfectly within reason that they might need to search their memories for a moment, recollecting for themselves or reminding a friend who he is, in which case they might well say, “You know who I mean—Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured…”

Do you see the difference?

One little word: the instead of a, and it turns from clunky exposition to a flowing internal conversation.

Yes, I have written this entire post to expound (as it were!) on the tiniest word in a 500+ page novel. But when I read that paragraph, that “the” jumped right out at me. It was so simple. And so perfect.

Ok, I promised you this would relate to the kind of writing you and I do, every day. Chances are, you’re writing neither historical fiction nor television screenplays. But you are writing for an audience, and you need that audience to stay with you, in whatever “story” you’re telling. So you need to remember:

  • If you use meaningless jargon—you will lose them.
  • If you sound inauthentic—adopt a voice that is too self-consciously hip, or an attitude that is too filled with rah-rah boosterism, or anything that strays from honesty—you will lose them.
  • If you are not inclusive—if you use sexist language, or project implicit assumptions that don’t apply to some part of your audience—you will lose them.
  • If you make too many careless mistakes in either content or form—you will lose them.
  • And if you can’t demonstrate the relevance to them of what you have to say—you will lose them.

Not to scare you or anything, but every word really does matter.

I’m working on some posts now about National Work and Family month, comedy in the workplace and a cool scheme to communicate work-life programs at Johns Hopkins. Some will be published here, some on Huffington Post, some on both…but you’ll only catch them for sure if you’re on my mailing list—sign up to Follow Me! 

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Writing in Between-Time

Between a rock and a hard place

Hello!

After a four-month hiatus, my blog is back. You might not have noticed the gap, but in case you did—my apologies for the long wait. In a minute, I’ll tell you why it happened and how I might have done things differently, if I’d been just a wee bit more disciplined…but first…

I’m proud to announce my blog has once again received an Apex Award for Publication Excellence in the category of Blog Writing. This is my second consecutive year winning the award and I’m thrilled. 

I’m also surprised, because I assumed I wouldn’t even be in the running, given how long it’s been since I last posted. About that:

Last April, for the first time since I launched this blog at the close of 2011, I became overwhelmed. It was the start of Great Place to Work season, the time of year when I help companies complete their applications to the Great Place to Work Institute, required for consideration on Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list. I was helping a number of companies with this process, plus doing some other work, plus trying to upgrade my website (more on that soon). The end of the school year was approaching, followed by (what ought to be) luxurious lazy summer, and my two teenagers, each in his/her own way, needed some time and attention. I was busy night and day, and, more importantly, my creativity was being tapped to the max.

But while all that might have served as an excuse to blog a little less, it was no excuse not to blog at all. Because I am in possession of a magical power, one that I’ve employed in many such situations in the past. It’s the power to get work done—especially writing—without taking up any actual time. If I were to name this power, I’d call it “writing in between-time.”

Writing in between-time simply means getting beyond the “uninterrupted block of time” approach to writing. Yes, sometimes sitting down with a nice open chunk of hours can give you the psychic space you need to think creatively, and the focus you need to get it all down on paper. But you might be amazed at how much you can get done by jotting things down during the moments in between—while you’re flipping through magazines in a waiting room, maybe, or in the ten minutes between checking a task off your to-do list and the start of an upcoming meeting. As a New Yorker, I get an enormous amount of writing done on the subway—and I’m not talking about long rides, necessarily. One of my most common commutes takes about 22 minutes. I’ve gotten a lot written on that one. For the daily car commuters among you, I’d recommend writing during all that sitting-in-traffic time, but the last thing I want to do is encourage distracted driving. Hmm…maybe consider switching to mass transit?

Over the years, I’ve accomplished quite a bit with this trick. I’ve used between-time to revise or proof drafts, or, on occasion, to write entire blog posts. But most often, I’ve used this magical non-time to get past the hardest part of writing anything, the empty page. Without vast amounts of time stretching ahead of me, it’s less daunting to just jump in and get something—anything—down on paper. Once I’m back at my desk, I have a place to start. I type up my scribbled draft, rearranging and refining it as I go, and skip right over the paralysis of the empty screen.

In fact, seen in this light, between-time writing is more than just a trick for busy seasons. It can sometimes be the most effective, efficient approach you can take. You know you have just a few minutes—so you plunge right in. (It’s similar to the effect of waiting until the last minute before a deadline—but with the added advantage that you can do it days or weeks ahead of time.)

I read somewhere about a writer who, when he (or was it a she?) was stuck, would go out for a walk or run an errand, then, upon returning, race to his desk and start writing immediately, without even taking off his coat. (I can’t remember where I read this, and I may have made up the part about the coat, but that’s the way I’ve always pictured it.) Sounds like an SNL skit, on one level, but it resonated with me immediately. He was creating his own between-time.

Of course, it’s not a fool-proof trick, as the four month silence of this blog demonstrates. (Although, in fact, I did do a lot of between-time work during those months—it just wasn’t blogging work.) But it is a useful bit of magic to remember, especially when between-time is the only time you have.

I’m still working out some of the kinks, but soon you’ll be receiving these posts directly from my new website. You can take a sneak peek, if you like—you’ll find it at the same address as my old website: www.robinhardman.com. 

Is Writing Dead?

Death

Photo credit: tanakawho

I was talking to someone recently about some possibilities for presentation topics at a conference. She’d suggested a few options relating to work-life communications or social media. I said, “What I’d really love to do is a writing workshop.”

“Writing?” she asked. “Who writes anymore?”

I sort of understood what she meant. When we talk about communications, about media—social and otherwise—we’re all encouraged to think in grand terms: video, tweets, Powerpoint, info-graphics, podcasts, etc. And it’s true that any twenty-first century communications plan does have to include at least some of these media. But I still get most of my information from the written word—don’t you?

I’m starting to get the hang of Twitter, but mostly because I’ve discovered what a good source it can be of links to articles elsewhere. If I need to research a topic, or am seeking some “how-to” information, I start with Google, just like everyone else. I don’t reach for a book or head to the library. But nearly every Google search leads to written web content, a PDF, or a book.

I know we all have different favorite ways of getting our information, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others like me who, when finding that a search result links to a video, click away and move on to another link that will give me the information in writing. If I want to know how to do something, or learn more about a topic, I don’t have the patience to watch a video. A video organizes the information for me, in a way I may not want it organized, forcing me to wade through a lot of stuff I’m not interested in without being sure I’ll find the information I do want. I want a piece of text that I can search, skim, or read end to end, as I please. I want to control the pace, not have someone else’s idea of pacing fed to me in video form.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, even if you are taking in your information (or putting it out) in the form of a video, podcast, or PSA, someone still has to write it first.

It’s the new year, progress marches ever forward (I suppose) but words remain timeless. Don’t be deluded by technology—whether your audience is going to find you by linking from a Tweet or from Facebook, read you on an iPhone or a Nook, or listen to you through iTunes, in the end, you generally have only words to get your point across. Remember that at one time a printed book was a technical innovation. But it still made use of the same communication building blocks used by the ancient oral poets and the monastic scribes that came before: words.

No matter how you cut it, you need words to communicate, and to communicate effectively you have to know how to use those words effectively.

Writing lives!

Overwhelmed by that application for the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list? I’ve helped lots of companies get through the process and earn their place on the coveted list. Contact me and let’s set up a time to talk.