the tamago report

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Tag: style and tone

Writing speech

by MDY

It’s like a fingerprint in space. Odd syntactical constructions, catch-phrases, tending to “like” rather than “you know” – they never just happen once. Of course it can be controlled – hence the idea of formal register – but even then certain heuristic traces will remain. Even if you give two people the exact same words, the sounds will be different, and not just when comparing between Singaporeans and South Africans. It’s relatively easy to capture the uniqueness of diction, but tone and inflection are not as acquiescent.

There is no truly lossless format. What has said cannot be retracted, but will start to change shape if we pay it enough attention. It sloughs off its marginalia, recomposes itself into something more refined and polished but with the same meaning – or with a shift so slight that we might never notice. When you try to capture it with paper, it behaves like a cat in a box. If I omit a cough while transcribing from tape, does it still sound like a falling tree? Too many “um”s can make the erudite look dense; when caught in writing, a trifecta of “well”, “you know” and “I mean”  spells obfuscation. There’s nothing self-explanatory about he said/she said.

My approach is being true to one another. Just like with cats in boxes, the relativity of a goal doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. The hardest part is when your fingerprints are coming loose from too much backspacing, and all you want to do is a vague sketch instead of careful tracing. But like truth, karma is chameleonic: misquote someone, and you’ll never know what fate your words will meet in a dark study or when. The main thing is remembering that neither sound nor its absence ever signifies nothing.

Only after many hours of close listening will you realise how dull most people sound. Then you have two choices: change the station, or keep listening. When doing the first, remember both the best and worst fictive dialogue sounds exactly the opposite to how real people do. Only do the second if  it begins to sound like song.

Writing about boring things

by MDY

The trick is to remember what Hamlet said. My first writing job involved me putting together encyclopaedic entries about antiques. Very few seventeen-year-old boys have a natural interest in antiques. I was not one of them. But after completing only a few of these entries, I realised that antiques weren’t just antiques. The process of intaglio, for example, has much to do with Walter Benjamin’s arguments in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, while the term “campaign furniture” (the subject of my very first entry) draws for its etymology a long process of utilitarian evolution going right back to Julius Caesar’s ill-fated invasion of the British Isles. I was writing about so many more things than just old jugs, and while younger more nubile ones might have commanded greater attention, it didn’t matter, because antiques weren’t boring. Once you realise everything is tied to everything else, you can write about anything with passion and vigour.

Writing helps you understand. Unlike most journalists or professional writers, I don’t have a particular area of expertise which I’m most comfortable with. If anything, my area of expertise is my writing – and I’ve not particularly exemplary in that regard. But I can only write effectively about something if I understand it – and not just the superficial “A does B and B does C and therefore impending apocalypse” understanding, but the sort which tries to really get what’s going on and what’s at stake and exactly how a bunch of wires can enable some cute-looking cone of expensive hardware to single-handedly (-wiredly?) arrest a 12,000-mile-per-hour descent and plonk itself down in a crater on a red and dusty and entirely alien world.

So I talk to people who do understand. I ask them questions, and read their books, and follow them around, and do my darnedest to gain a smidgen of the understanding which they possess. Terrifying? Yes. Boring? Never. And it also works for academic essays (understanding a concept), job applications (understanding a business), and longform fiction (understanding a life which is not your own). Too often boring is a synonym for incomprehensible. Too rarely is writing a synonym for learning.

I have trouble with repetition, though. Even the most interesting subject in the world gets dull once you’ve written about it more times than there are rings in Olympic iconography (which, if you’re having trouble counting, is still a single-digit figure). I treat these occasions like weightlifting – painful, and potentially sweaty. But just like a body-builder, I know that “doing reps” is a necessary part of my development. Repetition ensures the understanding you’ve gained doesn’t disappear. It renders you more fluent in what you’re writing on, either by dint of familiarity with your subject matter or the ability to present it to different sorts of people. It gives you the chance to improve your writing technique by strengthening old things or trying new ones.

My pectorals are not much bigger than when I was a seventeen-year-old. But that’s not what my daily work-outs seek to do. They help me write about a world where ab can be a preposition, a testing framework for start-ups, or a latitudinal core strength indicator  of which I currently possess approximately 1.07. There’s nothing boring about that.

Guest Post: From creativity to the C-suite

by MDY

Today’s tamago comes from Patrick Lin, our first guest writer and an old school friend of mine. Since he left for the States three years ago, I hadn’t seen much of Paddy until he came back down for his summer vacation – and a stint working alongside me in the world of professional communications. Here’s a little of what he’s learnt so far.

– MDY

On my first day at work I was asked to write a 1,500 word feature article. About a printer. For a magazine which talks solely about printers. I didn’t even know there existed articles of this sort, let alone entire magazines. It seemed unimaginable that there were readers out there who’d go reams of printer-related jargon with the same delectation I might with TIME or National Geographic. I amused myself for a second with the thought of printer nerds frothing at the prospect of cloud print compatibility and the highest DPI print technology can offer. In any case, to each his own; I was determined to deliver on my first assignment. After all, what good would a Williams education be if I couldn’t get a simple task like this done?

My article turned out to be a dog’s breakfast. Of course, my supervisor said it was great and immensely helpful for her to build on. But I knew I had to learn how to harness my university writing skills for the corporate environment. If you’re in university or any other educative institution, you’ll probably soon be writing for a business (or in the business of writing). Here are a couple of tips I’ve picked up to get you ready:

1. Understand the brand.

How does the company want to sell itself? Are they proper or laid-back? Who is their target market? These things will be predetermined by the corporation, but at times you will need to do serious detective work because some companies have more distinct brand voices than others. For example: Virgin Air has loud brand voice all about delivering mates rates all round because they know that not all of us treat a trip from Australia to Europe like an excursion to the zoo. On the other hand, Xerox’s language is at best elegant and at worst bland, and is in general unemotional. If you wrote for Xerox with the same “no frills” attitude of Virgin, it would not work.

Companies are like people: they each have their own voice and character. Get to know this personality first, then sell the company for exactly who they are in the best way possible.

Ed: This is also relevant when you’re writing cover letters or job applications – if you can align your tone with that of the company’s brand, you stand a far better chance of being hired than a cloistered English-Major who uses “ergo” in every second sentence. Unless you’re applying to be a Latin professor. QED.

2. Bring your business to life.

How often do you see companies champion “professionalism, integrity, respect,” in their mission statements? Or companies that write: “we strive to deliver excellent industry standards to our customers.” And my personal favourite: “your call is important to us” after being on hold for 20 minutes. This dull, impersonal language is the market norm and does not set companies apart from their competitors; it’s language customers can’t believe in.

We are more likely to do business with people we like. When you write for a corporation, don’t be afraid to write like there is a real person on the other end. At the end of the day, business is done by real people, not corporations.

Ed: Of course, the degree to which this holds depends on who you’re working for. Be personal, but don’t be an idiot.

3. Change the way you look at your undergraduate education.

There is one school of thought that says you go to university to learn a vocation. After all, you spent all of high school studying history and basket weaving.

But the times are changing. By the time you graduate from your vocational degree, you’ll probably be learning a different skill set. What is more valuable then, is your ability to grasp vast amounts of complex ideas and weave them into a cohesive, easily-understandable whole (Ed: like a basket).

And since we now live in the age of the cognitariat – a class of white collar workers who generate information – this skill will prove invaluable not only for lifelong learning. It’ll also be an important asset in the workplace, where you will undoubtedly be required to add to the wealth of information already floating around in the zeitgeist of our digital age.

Taking complex information and sythesising it into a coherent, easy-to-understand and original form is not something everybody can do. But you’re already doing it at uni. Don’t squander that opportunity.

In brief: Write in a voice that is true to the character of the business. Don’t be afraid to let people know there is a real person talking on the other end. While at school, read critically and write assertively.