Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman
As a part of the Quinnipiac social media writing class, we were required to purchase and reference The Elements of Style (illustrated) by William Strunk, E. B. White, and Maira Kalman.
Rather than just reference this work, I read it from cover to cover. And it turned out to be an easy read, considerably more comprehensive and better than I had remembered.
Simple rules emerge in clear and concise prose which never talks down to the reader. It contains all of the rules that so many people should known, and should have learned years ago. Yet these days it seems that so many people just plain don’t know.
Case in point: forming possessives. Therefore, on Page 1 the guide just says, “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”
That’s it, no more.
Information about punctuation remains equally succinct. Hence on Page 15, the guide says,
“A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”
Easy to follow and remember, the above two sentences tell more about colons, semicolons, and dashes than I think I learned in most of my formal education.
Furthermore, language comes across as something knowable, with rules and formal logic. This is instead of what English can sometimes seem like, e. g. a messy stew of words from all over the world. The work gives the English language structure and predictability. Both of these things make it a lot easier to know the rules.
There is but one thing left to say, and the Elements of Style certainly says it.
This was a story originally created for a competition. But it also came from a very wacky idea I had had several years previously.
The concept was, how would First Contact happen? And so I hit upon a very strange way to do it.
Because TV is more important to many of us than we would care to admit, the idea was a simple one.
My aliens would have to originally contact us on television. And, even better, it would have to be via the medium of fiction. But what would be the best means of doing this? After all, TV shows are cancelled all the time.
And then I hit upon the more or less perfect answer.
And so the idea was born – my aliens would make contact with us via the soaps.
My Aliens: the Characters
The characters are not of this earth, of course. The only two who really get names are Chaz and Katherinemma. Katherinemma got her name because Alyssa Milano had (at the time) recently named her daughter Elizabella. So K got her name as a kind of homage to that.
And Chaz, of course, was the most typical and obvious male soap star name we could think of.
Some of my favorite parts of this story are how the action zooms from the strangers thinking about contacting Earth to the stars getting here. And then, of course, they have to get to Area 51 (because, reasons). And, of course, the daytime Emmy awards.
No good soap opera would ever be complete without a dramatic scene with a slap. No good story about celebrities would ever be complete without some crazed fan screaming about having her idol’s baby. And no good science fiction yarn would ever be complete without something with tentacles.
Fortunately, the story has all of that.
It also has what, I feel, is perhaps the funniest ending line I have ever written.
All My Aliens is probably a K when you get right down to it.
I don’t mean the happy, contented monster. Because that one wouldn’t need any feeding.
I mean the concept of adding content regularly.
I enjoy writing about as much as, perhaps, any blogger. But sometimes the words just don’t come. And, in the meantime, you need to be pumping out content!
C’mon, chop chop! What the devil is wrong with you? Why aren’t you yammering, 24/7, like you’re supposed to?
Egad, it’s enough to put you off your feed. Or, at least, put you off blogging.
Case in Point
I used to write for the Examiner.
So I was supposed to post every month. And I did. I liked having an active status there, even if it was fairly marginal by the end. It’s not like I was buying groceries with my big earnings from there. And, truthfully, they did pay me one time. It thrilled me at the time. These days, I get an actual salary for my musings. Hence a pittance from the Examiner, while considerably better than a kick in the teeth, stopped cutting it.
And it was not enough for them, anyway. Instead, they would send me a reminder every two weeks.
This being constantly reminded never gave me content ideas. Going to their content idea bank never gave me ideas, either, although I knew they tried and did not fault them for that. I tend to zig when I should be zagging (or perhaps it’s the other way around). And, in the meantime, being prodded every fortnight never made me a happy blogger.
Instead, it made me feel like I was listening to a spoiled, petulant child who was dissatisfied with what I had provided, and only wanted more, more, more!
I gave you a Honda. And now you want a BMW? Cripes. Leave me alone, content monster.
I still have to feed a content monster with a shovel. But at least I have other people to feed me ideas. Thank God.
So far as I’m concerned, there are three real solutions for feeding the content monster.
Make a list, brainstorming, of everything that could possibly, ever, be associated with your topic
This list will change as time goes by, as you evolve, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, etc. etc. Refer to the list often, and record when you’ve written about a particular subtopic.
Let’s take my old weight loss column from back in the day. The list included things like carbs, aerobic exercise, running 5K races, shopping for clothes, etc. If I last wrote about clothes shopping in 2010, I could write about that activity again.
But if I last wrote about it last week, though, then forget it. So I would need to cast about for something else. Keep updating the last, even splitting out larger topics if appropriate. The subject of clothes shopping could divide by season. Or write one post just devoted to buying a swimsuit.
Strike while the iron is hot
That is, if you’re feeling inspired, don’t just write the current blog entry. If you’ve got the time, write the next five. Just go until you run out of gas. Any blogging software worth its salt provides the ability to schedule posts in advance. Take advantage of this.
Repurpose, repackage, reply, rethink
Go online. Look at others’ takes on your topic. There are few new topics under the sun. Someone has written about your topic. I can practically guarantee that. And that’s fine. Just don’t out and out plagiarize. But I don’t see any laws against referencing someone else’s blog or article on a topic and then expanding on it.
Nourish the content monster when you can, for there will be fallow times, and you must prepare for them. And, when it works for you, even silence can be golden. After all, if you’ve got absolutely nothing to say, who needs to hear that?
Some of the respondents saw less harm in a relationship where the parties never actually, physically, met. Others saw it as being more or less the same as a physical affair, or at least an emotional one.
Hannah performed the research for her book, The Telling Error. She says,
“The thing about Twitter is that everything is on there, so whatever you’re interested in is there. But it is capable of being incredibly nasty. I noticed that whenever somebody either does something wrong or offends somebody, Twitter will form a kind of aggressive, vindictive mob and start slagging off that person. Almost always, the punishment is worse than the crime.”
For bored and isolated people, social media can often serve as a godsend. Yet with worries such as this, spouses might do well to be cautious. Not necessary jealous, but at least to be wondering a bit, if someone spends seemingly forever online. It does not help that a lot of online behaviors encourage an almost addictive obsession. Because we crave the latest tweets.
We can’t wait to read the next gem from the Huffington Post, or take the latest meaningless quiz from Buzz Feed, or try to prank our friends with the most recent fake news from The Onion. And do not get me started on Candy Crush.
Hence the opportunities are all too ample for vulnerable, lonely people to end up typing a little too much with someone else, and for it to turn into sexting and worse.
At least, that’s what Mark Zuckerberg would want us all to think, wish and feel. I can understand that, a desire to make a website about as universal as possible. Once the site stopped being exclusive to collegians, the inevitable business model was to universalize it. And the site, today (although that will probably change), has about the best chance to become a truly universal web experience as any site.
So, are you on the biggest social media site on the planet? About 1.82 billion daily users are, as of this writing (late 2020). But, wait, not so fast. Is that number truly accurate? Absolutely not. After all (and for different reasons), my husband and I each have more than one account. Do you? Even if you don’t, I bet you’ve got at least one friend who does, and probably lots more.
And that is perfectly all right, and is absolutely permitted by the site (although they’d like to change that). And they are trying to….
Facebook also pushes for users to go with their correct names. Why? Because if you can hide behind a username, you might flame people more than if you can’t. Real names also (in theory) help to eliminate duplicates. But in all honesty, how many guys named Mike Brown do you know? I can think of two I’ve known in my life and that figure is probably more like four or five.
Even middle names might not fix such a duplication issue. There are probably several men with the name of Michael David Brown in the world.
Also, though, another use for real names is better marketing. If you Anglicize your name, then an advertiser might miss that you’re Hispanic, and incorrectly market to you.
Not So Fast On Those Real Names
We have all seen names which are not quite so perfectly right, though. How many of us have seen married women using a middle name of something like Was(whatever their maiden name was)? Hence Susan Davis might call herself Susan WasSmith Davis. It’s not a perfect solution, and you don’t really have to do that, anyway. Still, there are plenty of people who do.
Others might place a nickname within the middle name field. Robert Bob Brady, or Richard Dick Daily. But again, they might not have to. The more common nicknames are already going to come up in a search, even though, in both of these examples, the nickname starts with a letter different from the full name.
Still others may try to use stage names, but Facebook would rather you just created a fan page or had someone do so for you. This is not just to nicely help you keep your personal and professional lives separate. It’s also to market to your fan base better.
No Real Name, No, I Mean it, Facebook!
Then there are people who have damned good reasons for never using their real names, such as people escaping domestic violence. Facebook has gotten better and more sensitive when it comes to such needs.
The site’s main purpose (in case you’re just coming into the light after a few years on a desert island), is to sell advertising. Its offshoot purpose is to connect people, of all stripes, for free. But it’s those connections which sell the advertising.
There’s a lot else to it, at least on a general basis. But it’s still a valuable business tool for any Social Media Marketing Campaign.
But never forget: you’re the product Facebook is selling.
The Best Parts of the Site for Social Media Marketing
Facebook’s main virtues, when it comes to your business, can currently be divided into three basic areas:
Personal pages and peripheral connections to same
Company pages and groups and peripheral connections thereto, and,
Offsite connections back to the site
By “peripherals”, I mean all the extra stuff that goes along with the site experience, and not computer hardware peripherals.
The Concept of Universalish Reach at Facebook
Beyond just the sheer numbers, Facebook is extremely good at putting people together who are similar. You always get friend suggestions, yes? Those people tend to either have friends in common with you, or they have some other characteristic in common with you. That ‘in common’ bit might be home town. Or it might be favorite sports team. Another possible connection could be where you work.
Now, let’s face it: if you work in a huge Fortune 50 company, then you’ll have tons of coworkers. And the chances are beyond good that you won’t know everyone. You may not even know everyone in your office building or even on your floor.
So sometimes when a friend request arises, it may feel like a mystery. Hence – look for a commonality.
Clutches of People
But let’s get back to the people you do connect with. It’s perfectly natural to hang out with the people you went to high school with, or who love the same sports team you do. You might feel more comfortable with fellow cancer survivors. Or you might want to set up a political echo chamber. Another thing you might want to do is spend time with people in the same profession as you.
But no matter what, we people tend to group together. It’s a natural tendency. We’ve been gathering together since before there was a Homo sapiens species.
Facebook just exploits that. Really, really well.
And if antitrust cases go one way, they might not in the future. But we don’t know that yet.
LinkedIn is almost a corporate version of Facebook, a serious social networking site amidst all the chatter. If you are looking for a job, you need to be on LinkedIn. In case you might be looking for work again some time in your lifetime, you need to be on LinkedIn. If you might ever be called upon to professionally recommend someone, or professionally network together people from disparate times of your life (such as a college classmate and a person you know from your last job), you need to be on LinkedIn. And if you ever need to showcase your credentials to a mass audience, for any reason whatsoever, you need to be on LinkedIn. And the cornerstone of it all is your resume.
Who Should Be on LinkedIn?
And if there’s anyone else over the age of eighteen left in the United States, or potentially on the planet, chances are pretty good that they need to be on LinkedIn as well.
All of the aforementioned are perfectly good reasons to be on LinkedIn, but there’s one more. It puts together all of your professional data into one safe, trusted and uniform online package. Hence LinkedIn, like your resume itself, gives Hiring Managers a well-presented collection of information about you as a worker.
But that is if you take the time to make a complete, compelling and well thought out profile. If not, well, then LinkedIn can become a fast ticket to oblivion.
Hence, you need to put together a cogent profile, and the first place to start is with your resume. It will be similar, but not identical, to the resume you provide directly to Hiring Managers.
Improving Your LinkedIn Resume
So here are some tips for making your LinkedIn resume as good as it can be:
List all of your major jobs, no matter how long ago you did them, so long as the company (or a successor) is still in business. This is counter to what is normally put into a regular resume. On LinkedIn, you don’t really have a length issue. Plus, you want to list as many companies as possible in order to make linking easier with a greater number of people
Place key words and phrases in your job descriptions. People hunting through LinkedIn are most likely to be using the search feature, so you need to have words and phrases listed that people will be using to search for someone like you. E. g. if you’re looking for work as a Business Analyst, don’t just include the title – also include the fact that you did (assuming this is accurate) requirements gathering, which is a main Business Analyst task across multiple disciplines
List the different types of software you’ve used, with versions. This is, again, to make your profile come up in searches. E. g. if you used Excel 2003 and Excel 2007, make sure they are listed that way.
Just like with a standard resume, use action words and well-defined metrics to show what you did in your career. “Worked on the Smith project” is nowhere near as impressive as “Performed quantitative analysis; these recommendations saved the company 20% of the estimated costs on the Smith project”. Numbers are impressive. Use them.
Make sure your company listings jibe with what’s already on LinkedIn. That is, let the software give you choices (if any) for the company name. If you worked for a very large company (say, Fidelity Investments), the company name is already on LinkedIn. Don’t type it in yourself. This will automatically make it easier for you to link to everyone else who has listed Fidelity Investments as a current or past employer, and
Feel free to add more than one current employer, including any volunteer work you may be doing. Again, this will add to the ease with which you can link to others.
The Numerati by Stephen Baker remains a fascinating work about sensors, technology, data mining and where it’s all going when it comes to our privacy.
And it ends up all about data, about collecting, refining and interpreting it. People are, well, a bunch of fish in a bowl. Or, if you prefer, hamsters on a wheel. We are lab rats, we are subjects, we are collections of bit streams. We are … information.
And the kicker is that, put together enough things about us, and conclusions can suddenly be drawn.
Let’s say I go to the same grocery store every week (not a stretch – I really do). And I buy fish every single week. What if I buy, say, tuna steaks 70% of the time, and swordfish the other 30%? Am I automatically a tuna lover? Or am I simply scared to try something new? Or am I getting to the fishmonger when everything else is sold out?
And what happens if a coupon is introduced into the mix? Does my tuna consumption go up to 80% if you give me $1 off per pound? However, that’s not too much of a victory, seeing as I normally buy it anyway. Will a $1 off coupon entice me to buy more pricey salmon instead?
Ideas But Not Gospel
The data gives its interpreters (Baker refers to them as the Numerati, which sounds a tad like Illuminati and perhaps he means that) ideas. However, it’s not really a slam-dunk. Or, at least, not yet. Hence essentially the Numerati bucket you. So I am a tuna buyer. And I am a sometime swordfish buyer. And I am also a Caucasian woman, in her (ahem) fifties, married, no children, living in Boston.
So far, so good. And when the data are all herded together, when the bits and bytes of our lives are aggregated, this may very well have a lot to say about us. Because it might be a predictor of how I’ll vote in the next election. Or perhaps it will show how I’d use a dating site if I should ever need one in the future. Or it may even tell whether I’m likely to become a terrorist.
Border Collies and Data Goats
The data matters, but, to my mind (and to Baker’s as well, it seems), there are not only herds of data but there are also nagging outliers. And these constitute the Border Collies amidst all the data goats. Perhaps I am buying tuna to feed to a cat. Or maybe I buy it with the intention of eating it to improve my health but, alas, never get to it and it goes to waste every single week.
So consider this case: a health professional places a sensor into a senior citizen’s bed, to determine whether that person is getting up in the morning. And, let’s say we also collect weight data. Because a sudden dramatic rise in weight would indicate the possible onset of congestive heart failure. And let’s say the senior in question is a woman who weighs 150 pounds. Your own mother, maybe. Day one: 150 pounds. Day two: 158 pounds. And then day three: 346 pounds. Day four: 410 pounds. Golly, is Mom really that sick?
Maybe Mom’s dog is 8 pounds. Okay, that explains day two. But what about days three and four? Maybe Mom’s got a boyfriend.
Or maybe she’s got two.
When I had the occasion to meet Stephen Baker, we had the opportunity to talk a bit about these squishy, messy feelings. Sure, our hearts are in the right place. And we want Mom to be safe and healthy, and we can’t be there. She might live in a warmer climate, and we cannot (or won’t) leave our cooler climes. Or the job opportunities may be no good there for us. For whatever reason, we are here and she is there. So we want to be aware, and caring and all, but in our desire to gather information and protect her, what else are we learning?
If Mom is competent, and single, and protecting herself from STDs, we truly have no business knowing who she spends her evening hours with. Yet this technology makes this possible.
And if we have any sense of the future at all, we have to think to ourselves: what happens when I become Mom’s age? Will my bedroom and toileting habits potentially become a part of this huge bit/byte hamster wheel lab rat canary in a coal mine data stream? You betcha.
It is often said that only people who have something to worry about in their private lives are the ones who are worried. Everyone else should be fine, blithely giving up their warts and preferences, their virtues and secrets, to all who ask.
I say bull. I like my secrets. And I like my hidden life. And I’ll be damned if I give it up, even in the name of health, diet, voting, national security or even love.
(someone just like you, perhaps), what sorts of judgments would you make? What seems off? What’s being suppressed, which should be promoted, and vice versa? Is the picture clear or fuzzy?
The gist of that article is, take control of your information, keep it as a uniform brand and check it every month or so. The corollary to this is one from Shama Hyder Khabani, which is, essentially, don’t spread yourself too thin. Concentrate in only a few places.
My Own Information
Absolutely agreed. When I google my own last name, 32,900 hits come up. And, fortunately, my own website is in the top 2 spots (Yay, SEO!). My Entrepreneur profile (writing I do for work) comes up as third. Fourth is Twitter. Fifth is my LinkedIn profile. Further down the first page yields my two Facebook profiles, then my Amazon author page. And then something from a site called MuckRack (huh?). Finally, there’s my author profile at Businessing Magazine.
Putting my last name into quotation marks yields only 8,420 hits. All of the same usual suspects come up on Page One of the results. And nothing is too weird or scandalous. Even MuckRack, which essentially just scrapes for your name, doesn’t have anything bad. Hey, Yahoo! Finance published me!
How Accurate is the Information?
To my mind, checking and rechecking every single month might just be a bit excessive. Is there a need to keep your profile accurate? Sure. Flattering, or at least not damaging? Yes, particularly if you are looking for work. But to keep it sterile and perfect, as you scramble to make it perfect every moment of every day? Eh, probably not so much.
I would like to think (am I naïve? Perhaps I am) that potential clients and employers will see the occasional typo and will, for the most part, let it slide unless the person is in copyediting. I am not saying that resumes, for example, should not be as get-out perfect as possible. What I am saying, though, is that this kind of obsessive and constant vigilance seems a bit, I dunno, much.
Will the world end if I accidentally type there instead of their on this blog? And, does it matter oh so much if I don’t catch the accident immediately? Even when you consider that I’m a writer. After all, I should know better, yes?
I mean, with all of this brushing behind ourselves to cover up and/or perfect our tracks, and all of the things we are leaving behind, where’s the time and energy to make fresh, new content and look in front of ourselves?
Clean Up Your Presence
To me, there is little joy in reading a blog post or website that looks like it was put together by someone who’s barely literate. But there is also little joy in reading sterile, obsessively perfect websites and blog posts. A little imperfection, I feel, is a bit of letting the ole personality creep in there. Genuineness – isn’t that what the whole Social Media experience is supposed to be about, anyway?
I refuse to believe – I hope and I pray – that a bit of individuality isn’t costing me potential jobs or the company potential clients. And if it is, then that saddens me, to feel that, perhaps, there is a lot of lip service being paid to the genuineness of Social Media but, when the chips are down, it’s just the same ole, same ole.
Genuineness is great. One you can fake that, you’ve got it made? Gawd, please, say it ain’t so.
Social Media Continues its Relentless Pace to Try to Make You Stay Put
It’s a relentless pace out there. And much like the holidays accelerate the end of the year, and we suddenly look up on January 7th or so and wonder just what the hell just happened, social media is continuing to not so much reap the whirlwind as to be the whirlwind. But at the same time, there’s an effort afoot to slow down and control the whirlwind.
Twitter’s Relentless Pace
Case in point: Twitter‘s recent changes are designed to keep people on as long as possible. They do this by embedding media more directly and making it so that you don’t have to leave Twitter’s embrace in order to enjoy a clip or a photograph. So far, so good. But shortened URLs allow for more malware exploits. It’s like one step forward, a step back and another one to the side.
Facebook’s Relentless Pace
Facebook, yet again, looks to change its layout. The profile is going to become richer and provide more information. This may or may not be useful to users but it will certainly keep them on longer. At least, that will happen in the beginning, when it’s a novel concept.
LinkedIn’s Relentless Pace
Long ago, LinkedIn tried adding Signal to make it easier to track even more of the social media avalanche – and, of course, to try to keep people on LinkedIn as long as possible.
Currently, they are using status types of communications. Sounds a lot like Facebook, eh?
The Common Thread
What these changes had in common, other than, perhaps, novelty for the sake of novelty, is the desire to keep people on site as long as possible. Put some tar down, and have us all stick, at least for a while.
So while the internet spins ever faster, and social media sites attempt to keep up, their overall strategies seem to try to slow us all down. Will it work? Is it a foolish dream to think you can keep people around with such tricks, such slick bells and whistles?
Lack of Content
What disturbs me is that there’s not a lot of content happening. And it would, could, should make me want to hang around. Instead of hiring writers to improve things, or rewarding good current content providers, each of the big three sites is instead pursuing a software solution. But what’s the sense in hanging around a site if the content isn’t compelling? Or are we, instead, merely getting the sites that we, perhaps, deserve?
Hence here’s what happens if my Facebook friends list is dominated by people I went to High School with over thirty years ago. Their status updates and my wall have a lot of news of their birthdays, their children and their careers. But isn’t that what we would expect? And if I instead tip my list in a different direction, and it’s suddenly dominated by the people I work with or diet with or do artwork with, the news is going to be different.
In particular, politically, you can see very different versions of each site, depending on your bubble. After all, a lot of us prefer to see people we like and agree with.
Comparison to Reality TV
One thing about Reality TV is that it’s anything but real if it’s at all successful. Because people just, generally, don’t lead terribly interesting lives (yes, you too, gentle reader). We pick up the dry cleaning. Or we bicker over the remote. We forget to buy sausages and make do with hot dogs. And around and around and around we go. And all three of the big social media sites, when we are not following celebrities and businesses, are really just a big agglomeration of Post-It Notes whereby we tell each other to grab milk on the way home. For “Reality” to be compelling at all, it’s got to be unreal, and scripted. It must become this fight or that rose ceremony or this other weird pancake-making challenge.
The big three older social media sites, when you strip away the celebrities and the companies, can be a boatload of errands or a standard-form holiday letter. You know the kind, where you learn little Suzie has taken up the clarinet. Over and over ad infinitum.
No wonder we need software solutions to keep us there. The relentless pace continues.
Here are three things you can do if you have received a rejection from an agent or a publisher.
1) Mourn. Yes, mourn! It kinda hurts so allow yourself to feel hurt. But! Put a time limit on that. As in a week. Then consider yourself done with mourning what was.
2) Stick it in a drawer for three months, minimum. Let it go and move onto other things (another good reason to work on a lot of stuff at once).
3) After the magical three months (or more) have elapsed, take out the file and the rejection slip.
Consider a few objective things: (a) was it the wrong genre for that publisher? Then be more careful next time and keep track of which publisher accepts which kinds of works. (b) was it not submitted correctly? Then take the time to do submissions right. Do they want an attachment? Then send one next time. Do they want just the pitch and three chapters? Then send that. Do they just want the pitch? Then only send that. You get the idea. (c) Did you submit to more than one publisher when this one said they didn’t like that? Then don’t do that again.
Also consider subjective things: (a) did they not understand what your story is about? Then you need to work on your pitch/blurb. A writers’ group is a great place to do that. (b) did they say they had trouble getting through your story? Then you need to edit that sucker. Never mind if you already did. Edit again. And consider working with a pro editor. They are pricey but that is for a good reason. If you absolutely cannot afford a professional editor, then you need to hack away at your work yourself. So determine whether scenes or characters can be combined, as a start. Go back to beta feedback (you did work with beta readers, right?) and figure out what you hand waved away and work on what they told you to do. Because they were probably at least partly right. (c) did they say it just wasn’t for them? Then figure out why. Maybe they got three other moose detective stories before yours. Or maybe they’re closing the imprint you queried to. Maybe they’re just swamped.
Most importantly, keep the fires burning. Keep works in five categories:
Idea stage. You’re just kicking this one around.
Outlining stage. If you don’t outline, then consider this the ‘serious ideas’ stage.