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Signal vs. Noise: Writing

Our Most Recent Posts on Writing

Read this: Revising Prose

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 4 comments

There are plenty of books that will teach you to be a better writer, but I’ve never found one so immediately useful as Revising Prose by Richard A. Lanham. Following along as Lanham revises example upon example of real world writing is like exercise for your writing muscles.

My favorite takeaway is this tip for improving the rhythm and cadence of your writing. Many of us have learned to read text out loud as a method to reveal awkward transitions or generally dull passages, but you can also spot poor rhythm visually. A red flag for dull cadence is a run of sentences that are all of similar length. Try adding a carriage return after every sentence or phrase, the rhythm is evident:

Diagramming sentence length: dull vs. dynamic

While other books have increased my knowledge of writing, Revising Prose changed the way I write and how I think about writing. Buy a copy at Amazon.

A case for clarity in feedback

Mig Reyes
Mig Reyes wrote this on 10 comments

As an ad-agency refugee, I’ve struggled with my fair share of design debates with copywriters, project managers, clients, and everyone in between.

Maybe you’ve been there, too. The copywriter you’re paired with doesn’t think the marketing page you’re working on “feels right yet.” (As it turns out, the tone of voice is just off.)
In dramatic fashion, your client thinks the design you just presented is “way off base.” (You just happened to use a color they absolutely detest.)
It’s been five years since I’ve had a client meeting, yet the road blocks of vague feedback still come back to haunt me within the programmer to designer relationship.
The other day, Nick and I were debating the look and feel of shared code snippets. Or, so I thought…

Continued…

On Poetry & Programming

Kristin
Kristin wrote this on 23 comments

I’m a poet, lover of literature, and budding Ruby student. Even as a lover of language, I never thought to explore computer language as a way to enhance my knowledge and appreciation… until I started working here. In writing code, you face similar obstructions as you do in poetry: context, line breaks, stanzas, even word-choice.

As I revise and revise a program I’ve been working on, I realize how the content of the program dictates the form, just like in poetry. A stanza and a block of code are both rooms within the larger piece. Indentation can be used as a way to signal a change (in tone, movement, concept) to the reader in both a poem and a program.

Look at these screenshots: one is part of a Ruby program and one is a contemporary poem. It’s hard to tell the difference!

I think it’s possible to compare the arc of a program to the dramatic structure of a piece of literature, like Freytag’s triangle. (Although, that’s another post entirely…)

How else do you see form across languages and genres?

Rekindle my love of reading

David
David wrote this on 71 comments

When the iPad first came out, I somehow convinced myself that the Kindle was dead. Apple had managed to create something where you could not only read books, but also do everything else. Why on earth would anyone still cling to a single-purpose device like the Kindle? Surely this would be like carrying an iPod in one pocket and an iPhone in the other — pointless!

Ha! What really happened, of course, was much more subtle. Instead of killing the Kindle, the iPad just killed my desire to read books. From the time I got the first iPad until I rediscovered the Kindle this Christmas, I don’t think I finished a single book.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the technology story template of “Kindle killer”. A new product is usually always, and lazily, described in not so much what it does, but what it KILLS! If it bleeds, it leads.

Thankfully that delusion has now worn off and I’m back in love with e-ink and have finished four books since Christmas.

I still don’t understand why I can read blogs, news, and code on a screen all day with nary a complaint, but I can’t finish a book on the iPad. But I’m not going to argue, I’m just glad that I’m reading books again.

REWORK sales: Paper ain't dead yet

David
David wrote this on 69 comments

If you had asked me to guess, I would have said that 60-70% of REWORK sales came from ebooks. It’s a book targeted towards starters, people eager to jump on new trends and technologies, and our natural sphere of influence is with web people. Surely most would be springing for the Kindle or iBookstore versions, right? Wrong.

We’ve sold about 170,000 copies of REWORK across all media. Only 16% of those sales came ebooks. That’s only slightly higher than the 11% of buyers who went for the audio book. In other words, about three quarters of sales came from good ol’ hardcover books.

Lately, things have been improving somewhat for the ebooks. Our most recent statement shows that 19% of new sales came from ebooks. So things are changing, but not nearly as fast as I would have guessed.

Perhaps a lot of people are gifting REWORK to others (I’ve heard from many employees handing it to their boss!) and it’s easier to give a physical book than an electronic one. Perhaps people are smitten with the beautiful drawings of Mike Rohde and want them in the beautiful print. Perhaps physical books are just still a great way to read.

Tech journalists who make no sense

David
David wrote this on 49 comments

I’m sure all fields have terrible reporting, but the shit that’s coming out of the tech world must be eligible for some sort of cake. Taste this slice of delicious nonsense that made the Forbes site today in Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: We’ve Moved Past The Cloud:

Salesforce.com remains a stock with much upside, according to analysts at RBC Capital Markets, as the company continues to control larger quantities of customer data and leads the way to a post cloud world.

WTF does that mean?! So $CRM, which is trading at 416 P/E, is apparently heading to greater heights because it’ll control more data tomorrow? Control it how? What do you mean control?

They have a hosted software service that they charge a monthly subscription for. Presumably they’re not looking at customer data for a step 1: mining, step 2: ???, step 3: profit scheme?

What is a “post cloud world”? Is Salesforce not going to sell subscriptions to hosted software any more? Are they going to go back to shrink-wrapped software? WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?

This concept uses social media to gain knowledge of internal activities and externally about customers to ultimately help increase customer loyalty and foster interaction between employees and between the company and its customers.

Again, WTF?! I can hardly parse that sentence and even when I do, it makes no sense. I thought journalism was the process of researching and clarifying topics such that mere mortals could understand it.

I’ll tell you what happened. The guy writing this piece had no idea what any of any of this means, so he just selected a paragraph at random and pasted it in. The editors saw “social media” and “customer loyalty” and it made the grade for buzzword bingo.

Let’s end with this one:

Benoiff even told customers to beware of false clouds, making a clear reference to Oracle and its Exadata server.

Benoiff rambling about false clouds and moving beyond the cloud is just Benoiff doing what he does best: Selling buzzword bingo at a markup. It’s hard to fault the man for staying true to that game when it’s served the stock so well for so long.

But the “journalists” at Forbes are supposed to at least make an attempt at processing the nonsense before they regurgitate it. For shame, Forbes, for shame.

Chicago-style

Ryan
Ryan wrote this on 17 comments

Here’s a great little copy bit from the SecondConf website. The headline on the home page says:

“Three-day, Chicago-style, single-track conference”

I can easily imagine a more mundane version:

“Three-day, single-track conference in Chicago”

I don’t know what “Chicago-style” means, but it sure beats the mundane version. It’s more interesting and unique than merely stating that the conference happens in Chicago.

I like stuff like this because I personally struggle with making my writing interesting. It’s hard enough to be clear and get your point across. Being clear and interesting—that’s a goal to shoot for.

SvN Flashback: Eureka! We’re editors

Basecamp
Basecamp wrote this on 5 comments

I was having lunch today with some editors of a local weekly. After listening to them talk about what they do I realized that we do it too. We’re editors.

They edit articles, we edit software.

We prune it. We clip off the extra features like they clip off the extra words. We trim the interface like they trim a sentence. We chop products in half like they ask for 5000 words instead of 10,000.

The editing process is what makes a great product. Editing the feature list, editing customer requests, editing the interface, editing the code, editing the marketing, editing the copywriting. It’s not about designing or writing or coding, it’s about trimming those weeds back before they ruin the lawn.

So keep that in mind when you write, design, code, or promote. Good editors build great software.

Harlan Ellison: “All you gotta do is pay me… The only value for me is if you put money in my hand… I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.” (via Coudal)

Jason Fried on May 20 2011 22 comments

Social media

Matt Linderman
Matt Linderman wrote this on 33 comments

During the NCAA basketball tournament I heard announcer Jim Nantz telling viewers to go to CBSsports.com for “tournament related social media.” A week later I noticed a category at Maria Shriver’s site for “social media.”

Strange thing is I’ve never heard a non-tech person use the phrase “social media.” Normal people mention being friends on Facebook or reading someone’s tweets on Twitter. They don’t say, “I want to get some social media.”

It’s a good reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in industry jargon and how we talk instead of how they (i.e. customers) actually think/talk. The phrase you use internally isn’t necessarily the one you should use with the outside world.

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Judging from the highlighted security question, Sovereign Bank’s customers must be doing quite well. Maybe next they will ask, “What’s the name of your third-largest yacht?” Or “In what room of your mansion do you keep your Fabergé eggs?”

Matt Linderman on Apr 14 2011 29 comments