Coming Soon to the Small Screen (revisited)

Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? On some other diminutive device being introduced even as I write this? Knowing that you could be gives me pause. The smartphone has become a primary reading device.[1] So, unless you write nothing but lost-cat posters destined for telephone poles, or other print pieces that no one will ever upload to the Web, you have little choice but to join me in grappling with this question: what must writers do differently to accommodate the small screen?

The answer, I believe, is … nothing.

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Mastering the art of knowing your audience

If the editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin had had his way in 1959, Julia Child’s best-selling Mastering the Art of French Cooking — possibly the most influential work in American cookbook history — would never have been published. Even after Julia spent over a year tightening her manuscript at the editor’s request, condensing it as far as she felt she could, he still rejected it, judging it “so huge, expensive, and elaborate that it was certain to seem formidable ‘to the American housewife.'” *

This editor thought he knew his audience. He was wrong.

Julia knew her audience. She changed publishers. In 1961, Alfred A. Knopf served up this monumental pièce de résistance — all 734 pages — to the cooking world. That world, like Knopf’s, has never been the same… Continue reading

What’s your brand?

Was it a confusing icon? Was it a term used on different screens to mean different things? Was it a layout that could have been more logical? I don’t remember what I was pointing out to the product manager in charge of this device-in-development, but his reply seared itself onto my psyche. He might as well have said “Customers be damned.”

brand ironWhat he said (did he shrug?) was this: “People will get used to it.”

Maybe he thought the fix would have cost too much or would have delayed delivery. Business decisions involve trade-offs. I get that. What burned — a company’s brand is called a brand for a reason — was the unmistakable couldn’t-care-less attitude toward the user experience.

Some writers have a similar attitude toward their readers. The attitude sounds like “They’ll know what I mean” or “They’ll figure it out.”

True. They will. They’ll also figure out that the writer figured they would.

Hyphens unite!

A friend notes that the use of hyphens between adjectives seems to be going away. “Not sure why,” he says. “Hyphens make reading easier.”

I debated whether the lowly hyphen — that dinky, nonthreatening, barely there conjoiner of words — deserves a whole entry in a blog on Word Power. Is any punctuation mark less emblematic of power? A hyphen would never pull you over for speeding. When you’re choosing up teams, the hyphen is the last one to get picked. Hyphens don’t even merit sand in the face; they get ignored. Theirs is the ultimate humiliation: being left out.

But oh, when you see the hyphen for what it is, when you take the time to appreciate its unique qualities, you’ll find it a powerful ally indeed.

Example: true blue friend

The test: Say each adjective (true and blue) with the noun separately. True friend. So far so good. Blue friend. Not unless you’re talking about a Smurf. You don’t have a true and blue friend. True and blue work together as one adjective, a unit adjective. Uniting adjectives is the main thing hyphens were put on earth to do. Use the hyphen as the unifying force that it was meant to be, and you’ve got a true-blue friend.

Better examples: middle school child, ill prepared worker, light green suitcase

Huh? Is it a MIDDLE SCHOOL child or a MIDDLE school child? Are we talking about an ILL PREPARED worker or an ILL prepared worker? LIGHT… does that describe the suitcase’s color or its weight?

Of course, readers can figure these things out. But why force them to?

Should you always hyphenate a compound adjective (that is, multiple words working as one adjective) when those words directly precede a noun? Some say yes. Commonly, though, when a whole phrase, noun and all, becomes widely recognized, the hyphen disappears, and few miss it. For example, even in the language-usage-curmudgeon-filled-technical-writing world, the hyphen has all but dropped out of certain common terms, like content management system or (more controversially in the curmudgeonliest circles) quick reference card. Those who are comfortable with such omissions argue that the hyphen, for these terms and these readers, no longer has a job to do.

Unless you’re using that kind of tried-and-true term, though, give your readers the extra help that only a hyphen can.

Try this exercise in empathy. Read the following sentence s-l-o-w-l-y, and observe yourself as you read.

Stop out of control hyphen neglect.

The moment you realized that the space-separated words out and of and control wanted to be together, did your eyes zing back to the left margin like an old-fashioned typewriter carriage? Did you call forth imaginary hyphens to fill the voids and restore meaning so that you could go on?

With a little help from an undercelebrated hero, you can rescue your readers from such distress. Hyphens, unite!

(Thanks, Mark, for the inspiration for this entry.)

Who’s your Sam?


Recently, as I meandered through a confusingly laid-out hospital, which shall remain nameless, this sign caught my eye.

First, I struggled to figure out what it meant. (My car was in Parking 2. Should I use this door?) After I solved that mystery — yes, indeed, this door would take me to my car — I began to puzzle over the presence of the Braille lines that appeared below each line of text. Someone had spent money and effort to (theoretically) enlarge the audience for the message. But for whom could these tactile words have value?

I did my best to imagine such a person. Flipping a coin, I made this person male. I’ll call him Sam. What can we assume about Sam?

  • Sam is blind.
  • Sam can read Braille.
  • Sam knows that the signs exist.
  • Sam is not in a wheelchair. (If he were, he wouldn’t be able to reach the sign).
  • Sam has a companion who’s in a wheelchair. (Otherwise, Sam would have no use for the information.)
  • Sam’s companion is unable to read the sign aloud. (Why else would Sam take the time to read with his fingers?) Ergo, his companion is illiterate or dumb or very young or also blind. I picture a five-year-old. I’ll call her Julie.
  • Sam is unfamiliar with the wheelchair-accessible routes, and he has no other companions capable of guiding him. (If he knew the routes or had a guide, he’d have no use for the sign.)
  • Sam wants to get to Parking 2. (We have to go with that one.)

Who is Julie to Sam? A neighbor girl? His niece? No way. He’d never be sent out alone to fetch her. She has to be his daughter. He could be a single dad, proud and capable. Maybe Julie fell and broke a shin bone. Maybe the two of them recently moved here (Portland, Oregon) and have no friends or family in the area.

We come now to the scenario: Somehow, Sam and Julie found their way into the hospital. They’ve completed their business there, and they’re ready to go home. Sam is now wheeling Julie down a hospital corridor with one hand, feeling his way along the wall with the other.

“Hang in there, Punkin. I’m sure there’s a sign here somewhere…. Aha.”

His fingers glide along the first row of dots: PARKING 2 LEVEL G.

“That’s what we’re looking for.”


“We can’t use the stairs.”


“That must mean we can’t take the wheelchair down the stairs. Duh.”


“Okay. Where’s the ramp?”

[ _______ ]

“What the…?”

Hell-o-o. Sam doesn’t need a ramp. Sam doesn’t have a car. Sam’s never going to feel his way along these walls while single-handedly wheeling his little girl through a labyrinth.

Whoever required that this sign be translated into Braille had no conceivable audience in mind.

How about you? How well do you envision what’s happening on the receiving end of your messages? How fully do you imagine your readers? Who is your Sam?