Author Josh Bernoff has lots of actionable writing advice, and he prides himself on Writing Without Bullshit.
Lately he’s been critiquing apologies by CEOs who’ve been outed (and even ousted) for sexist behavior. His July 6 post confronts a different offense: trolling. He calls out the Reddit user who posted a video of Donald Trump beating up on a figure identified as CNN and then apologized for being a troll.
As usual, Bernoff takes the apology apart paragraph-by-paragraph. First, he quotes a portion of the apology verbatim. Then he gives a succinct analysis:
Analysis: This is true: “Trolling is nothing more than bullying.” Now one troll has seen the light. There are only a few million left to reform.
Finally, he boils the verbiage down to what he thinks the author is really saying:
Translation: Trolling is bad. Don’t be like me.
Then he asks, “What shall we do with trolls?” His answer: Expose them. “It’s a lot harder to be hateful if we know who you are.”
In response to those who take exception to his criticism, he asks, “Would you say it to their face?” He considers his comments fair if they critique “words and actions, not people or groups” and if he would deliver them directly to the person criticized.
His standards for fairness reflect a core principle of online etiquette, articulated by Virginia Shea in 1994: “Never mail or post anything you wouldn’t say to your reader’s face.”
Bernoff’s critiques are hard-hitting but civil. Taking on trolls without descending to their level requires a clear head and a stout heart. Thankfully, Bernoff has both, he’s willing to use them to expose self-serving apologists and trolls.
Philip Fernbach was well launched on his explanation of how to build a histogram by putting data into bins. Then a student apologized for asking a “stupid” question. “What’s a bin?” She wasn’t the only one who was confused. About half the students in the class didn’t understand the terminology Fernbach was using.
Actually the student’s question was very intelligent. She recognized a gap in her understanding. She also identified the information she needed to fill the gap. And she was brave enough to risk embarrassment by asking for the information she needed.
Fernbach was embarrassed, too, by his assumption that his students understood what he considered to be basic terminology. He used the opportunity to correct the gap in his students’ knowledge.
As Fernbach’s experience proves, knowing about the curse of knowledge is no guarantee we won’t fall victim to it. “When we know about something, we find it hard to imagine that someone else doesn’t know about it,” he and coauthor Steven Sloman write in The Knowledge Illusion.
How can we protect ourselves, and our learners, from the curse of knowledge?
- identify prerequisite knowledge and review it briefly (or provide online glossaries)
- imagine we’re developing for a bright 9-year-old with no prior experience
- pre-test fundamental terms and concepts
- ask subject matter experts what “everybody already knows” about their field and assume many learners won’t know what SMEs take for granted
- test materials with actual learners
None of these methods is perfect, which is why we’d be wise to do as Fernbach did and make it safe for learners to follow his advice: “If you find yourself with a stupid question, consider yourself lucky to have spotted a gap in understanding that others in the room might have missed, and have the courage to ask it. Your community will be wiser as a result.”
Fernbach, Philip. “We Should Be Asking More Stupid Questions.” 6 May 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/we-should-asking-more-stupid-questions-philip-fernbach
You might expect someone who scores well on a management test to be an excellent manager. However, a recent study found that managers who know principles and procedures often fail to put that knowledge into practice.
Lead researcher Timothy Baldwin and his colleagues identified three types of knowledge:
- principles (know that)
- ability to do something (know how)
- recognizing when and where to use a skill (know to)
Tests can measure the first two types of knowledge (know that and know how). However, they are not as effective at assessing knowing to, which “means having access to one’s knowledge in the moment—knowing to do something when it is needed.”
Based on the study, how-to writers need to do more than explain basic principles and processes. They also need to provide cues that help readers recognize when to apply knowledge.
For example, one principle of email etiquette is that you should exchange no more than three rounds of emails. If you haven’t resolved the issue after three rounds, call or visit face-to-face instead of sending another email. But what if an exchange starts to turn hostile?
Don’t wait for the third round; instead, call or talk in person immediately. Only someone who knows to ignore the rule when exchanges turn hostile can defuse conflict before it escalates.
As you write how-to materials, keep know-that and know-to in mind. Give readers cues about when and where t0 use what they know. Explain the rationale for recommendations so readers can recognize opportunities to apply them. By building know-than and know-to into your how-to training, you’ll develop leaders who can put their knowledge into practice.
Notes: Catherine Lombardozzi describes a 2011 study by Baldwin, Pierce, Joines, and Farouk in “Shocking Evidence of Managers’ Knowing-Doing Gap” in T+D (July 2012): http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2012/07/Shocking-Evidence-of-Managers-Knowing-Doing-Gap.aspx
Forgotten passwords, mangled links, corrupted files, and spinning beachballs of death—misbehaving technology can drive the mildest-mannered writer to fury. Tempting as it may be to pound your computer into its component atoms, resist. Technology can also lighten the burden of a writer’s most onerous tasks.
Write or Die
Many writers find that motivation is their greatest challenge. Anyone who has expressed a desire to be a writer has received the standard counsel: ” The best advice I can offer if you want to be a writer is … write. A lot.” That’s easy for Stan Nicholls to say. But how do you make yourself write when you don’t feel like it or you can find dozens of more entertaining or more pressing things to do? Let Dr. Wicked motivate you.
Dr. Wicked, also known as Jeff Printy, understands how easy it is to put off writing because any negative effects of delay seem far in the future. His application makes sluggards feel the negative consequences of procrastination as soon as they stop typing. Users set a goal and choose their level of consequences. Gentle mode delivers a “mom-like reminder”; kamikaze mode eats your words as soon as you stop typing. Sounds harsh? You should have been warned by the name: Write or Die.
Write or Die is designed to spur writers to create drafts. A readability checker helps writers revise drafts to make them easier for readers to understand. If you use Microsoft Word, you can get a readability score each time you check spelling or grammar. Several checkers are available online. I prefer the calculator available at Online-Utility.org. It applies several formulas to calculate the difficulty of a writing sample. The Flesch-Kincaid score indicates how many months and years of education a person would need to read a sample easily. For example, understanding a passage with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 7.2 would require 7 years and 2 months of schooling. Many newspapers and popular novels are written at about a seventh-grade reading level. Less commonly used, the Coleman-Liau index is a good choice for analyzing technical materials.
Although readability scores seem precise, they are based on algorithms that calculate sentence and word length. One formula scores E = MC^2 at a fifth-grade reading level, which ignores the complexity of Einstein’s theory of mass-energy equivalence. However, if your document scores higher than 10.0, readers will probably find it easier to understand if you shorten some sentences and prefer simple words to polysyllables. Online-Utility.org’s calculator suggests ways to make your writing simpler and more understandable.
Another way to make your writing understandable is to avoid unnecessary words. However, once you’ve labored to create a draft, stripping out nonessentials can be painful. Experienced writers have developed strategies such as targeting sentences beginning with It is or tightening redundant phrases such as now at this present time. Beginners may have no clue about how they could tighten their writing. Writers at any level of experience can find out whether their writing is fit or flabby by taking the Writer’sDiet Test, developed by Helen Sword. Enter a sample of 100 to 1,000 words, run the test, and get writing results based on your “diagnosis.”
This entry scored “lean,” as shown below. After submitting a sample, you can get editing suggestions by selecting How can the Writers’Diet Test help me improve my writing?
Stan Nicholls’ advice is found on his home page, stannicholls.com
To check readability in Microsoft Word, choose your version’s Help menu or visit http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/test-your-document-s-readability-HP010148506.aspx
Online-Utility.org’s readability calculator is available at http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp
The use and limits of using readability formulas are well explained in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective: https://www.cms.gov/Outreach-and-Education/Outreach/WrittenMaterialsToolkit/Downloads/ToolkitPart07.pdf
Take the Writer’sDiet Test at http://writersdiet.com/WT.php?home