The Corrections*

May 9, 2011

My daughters were creating posters on their computers for their upcoming gymnastics recital.  I was doing the usual technical support and acting as a human dictionary.  Then I got a look at the poster my youngest daughter was making.  At the same time, her big sister S screeched, “R!  That looks horrible!  You can’t use that many fonts!”

R had chosen to use a different font for every line of her 10 line poster.  Script, serif, sans-serif, they were all represented.  She also managed a healthy sprinkling of bold face, italics, and different font sizes in her poster.

“R, you can’t mix up so many typographical styles,” I stated.

Blank look from R (a 3rd grader).

“The rules for good design state you shouldn’t use more than 2 to 3 font variations on a page”, I tried to explain.

More blank looks.

S saved the day.  “R, that’s just plain UGLY and hard to read”.

That, R, understood.  The sisters worked together to fix the poster layout and font choices, leaving their mama to wonder why I decided to spout technical jargon at an elementary school-aged kid.

Truth was, I couldn’t tell R the truth.  It was ugly.  It was easier for me to hide behind words and not really tell her what was wrong in her words. Her sister had to deliver the truth, because it was hard for me to tell R it was ugly.  I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

How much ugly writing or layout do we allow to see the light of day, because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the creator.  Or we’re afraid of the reaction of the creator.  S’s blunt proclamation of the ugliness of R’s poster could have easily slipped into a standard big sister-little sister yelling match.  By the grace of whatever, it didn’t happen.  It probably helped that R was in a receptive mood.

Sometimes it can be very hard to approach someone with editing or design advice.  As in all things writing, know your audience.  Or as I call it, The Gambler Approach:  know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run (thank you, Kenny Rogers).  Will the audience be receptive to what you have to say?  Are they more receptive at a certain time of day or certain day of the week?  Or do you know it won’t make any difference at all what you have to say — the creator will want to do it their way and that’s it.

If you will have someone who will listen to what you have to say, make sure you have a plan for what you will say, state it clearly in their language and/or terms understandable to them, and describe the type of corrections that could be made to improve the document.  If you’re worried about hurt feelings or hurting a gentle soul, use a gentle touch.  Examples are helpful, showing how such-and-so change results in a better document.  Use it as teaching moment.

If you face a lot of resistance, that’s when you need to walk away.  It’s a hard thing to do, but in the end, you’re not the document’s owner.  It’s out of your control.  There’s something else that needs your time and attention; focus on that instead.


*with apologies to Jonathan Franzen


May 2, 2011

Lists are everywhere.  Shopping lists, the to-do list, and even kids create a list for Santa. My typical weekend list looks like this:

  • go to the post office
  • Linda
  • cookies
  • do the laundry
  • Staples
  • dog haircuts
  • grade

It’s just a random list of stuff, known to me just by the words on the page.  But if I handed this list to someone else (say my husband) they’d have to ask several clarifying questions to figure out what “cookies” or “Staples” means.

Lists, or bullets, in a document need to be clear and organized so the reader understands the author’s intent.  When a reader has to ask clarifying questions to understand the purpose of your list, (like my weekend list) you’re on the way to frustrating or losing your reader.

Bring clarity and organization to your lists by deciding, is this a verb (action) list, or a noun (object) list.  When you make a verb or a noun list, you are bringing your list of items into a parallel structure — each list item starts with a verb, or each list item starts with a noun.

To use my weekend list as an example, making it a verb list (“Things I Need to Do This Weekend”), it would look like this:

  • Go to the Post Office
  • Call Linda
  • Buy cookies at Lunds
  • Do the laundry
  • Purchase notebooks at Staples
  • Make appointment for doggie haircuts
  • Grade Assignment #5

Each item starts with a verb in the same tense (in this case, present).

The same list could be a noun list, such as “Where Will I Be This Weekend?”.  It would look like this:

  • Post Office
  • Grocery Store
  • Home
  • Staples
  • Dog Groomer
  • Coffee Shop

The list is neat and orderly, and answers the question posed by the lead in or title.

To summarize:  When you make a list, decide if you are making a verb (action) list or a noun (object).  Then make your list items begin with all verbs for the verb list, or all objects if it is a noun list.

Keeping your lists in line, or parallel, will make the purpose of your list clearer to your reader.

About the author

Staying Focused

April 25, 2011

Due to any number of reasons, there are some days when we have more focus than others. On those days, it’s harder to pay attention to the task(s) at hand. It’s normal, and it happens to everyone.

There are a few techniques you can use to help keep you on task and productive. Each of these techniques require two things: a timer (like a timer or countdown clock on your cellphone) and a break. Breaks can include getting up to stretch, reading your email, getting a refill on your water bottle.

The list below are three techniques with various working/break periods. For full details on how to do the Pomodoro or the (10+2) * 5, click on the links. The FlyLady link will take you to her home “crisis cleaning” technique, but it gives you the feel for the technique.

Each technique starts with a task list, and of course, a timer device.

  • The Pomodoro Technique – Four sets of 25-minute work sessions, with a short five minute break. After the four sets, reward yourself with a longer break break. A complete cycle is 100 minutes or more, depending on
    the length of your breaks are.
  • 43 Folders: (10+2)*5 – Five sets of 10-minute work session with a two-minute break after each 10-minute session. In each new 10 minute session, you’ll start on a new task in your task
    list. A complete cycle is 60 minutes.
  • FlyLady: You can do anything for 15 minutes – You’ll work three 15-minute sessions, then break for 15 minutes. In each new 15-minute session, you’ll start a new task on your task list. A complete cycle is 60 minutes.

These techniques do work! I used the FlyLady technique to research and write my grad school papers. I still use it at work when I have to blast through a pile of writing.

The key to all of these techniques is knowing that you have a break coming — it’s the proverbial carrot in front of the stick. The break is our reward for sticking to a task (or set of tasks). The break must be taken, otherwise it ruins the impact of the short burst/reward effect of the technique.

Next time you have “one of those days”, consider trying one of these techniques to help you stay focused.