Thursday, March 29, 2007

Writing is Essential

I've come to the conclusion that writing is perhaps the single most important skill one can master. That may sound odd, but think about it for a moment.

If you can write well, people will assume you are smart and qualified (even if you're not). The reverse is also true: if you cannot concisely articulate your ideas, no matter how ingenious those ideas may be, people will discount them and assume you are less intelligent.
Some people have a difficult time putting pen to paper. I chuckle every time I think about a comment someone once made to my mother. He said, "I can read writing, but I can't write reading.'" I suspect a lot of people feel that way about their own skills.

I am very fortunate in that writing seems to come naturally to me. Nevertheless, there are some things that I think have helped improve my own writing. I thought I'd share them.

    Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it will improve with experience. If you push yourself a little, you'll find that the more you write, the better you get. Indeed, one of the primary reasons I started blogging two years ago was to give me a reason to practice my writing. Looking back, I think my writing has improved since my original post.

    Stretch Your Vocabulary
    According to one study, the average 12th-grade student comprehends between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Unfortunately, most people only use 5,000 or 6,000 words in their own speech. I've seen other studies that statistically paint the same picture, but in this context the meaning is the same: people understand more words than they actively use.

    For a writer, this means you have a library of some 80,000 words (on average) that are available for you to use in your writing without becoming overly verbose. These words add flavor and detail; they describe subtle nuances that would otherwise be unknown to your reader. Why constrain yourself to less than 10 percent of that?

    I find that as I write, words often come to mind that appear to be appropriate for what I am describing. When I'm not sure, I look them up. Sometimes I find that my initial instinct was correct. Other times, I find that I was wrong about what I thought the word meant. In either case, the process of looking up the definition cements the word as part of my usable vocabulary. Also, never underestimate the power of a good thesaurus when you can't seem to find that perfect word to describe your topic.

    Writing is more than just the mechanics of grammar and syntax. To be effective, writing also has to have style and flow. Reading things that other people write can help you define your own style, and assist you with intuitively determining a flow. To be a good writer, first you have to be a good reader.

    I haven't written a sentence yet that didn't benefit from a good proof-read. Or a second, or a third proof-read for that matter. When I finish writing anything, I always go back (usually several times) and review it. Sometimes I focus in on one particular section, but I always finish by reading the whole thing from start to finish so I can verify that it flows nicely.

    Consider Your Audience
    I think it helps to visual the type of person who will read your writing. Are you writing a technical paper, a human interest story, or something you think children will read? Are you trying to write more formally, or more casually? Is humor appropriate?

    Avoid Profanity and Slang
    I'll be the first to admit that having spent 7 years in the Army, I can swear with the best of them. Try to keep in mind that there are very few venues in which written vulgarities are appropriate. Again, the idea is to leave a favorable impression. If you use excessive obscenities in your writing, people will draw the conclusion that you have a narrow grasp of written English. From there, it isn't much of a stretch to conclude that you are less intelligent.

    Have Fun

    I sometimes chuckle when I come up with something I think is really witty. To be honest, I think I'm tickled as much by the thought of someone else enjoying it as I am with my own originally quip. As you write, imagine the reaction your readers will have, and try to have a little fun with it.
If you want practice writing, you can start by leaving a comment. I may not respond to every comment, but I do read all of them.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Allowance Formula

My daughter and I have been trying to come up with a fair method to determine how much allowance to pay each child. I wanted something that would reward good behavior, punish bad behavior, and recognize that as children get older, they need more money (a painful fact of life for parents). What I came up with is this:

his or her age
times the number of A's on his or her last report card
times 1.5
divided by (the number of times he or she was punished last month + 2)

or more plainly: 1.5 * age * grades / (punished + 2)

So the formula would be: 1.5ag / (p + 2)

Which means, for example, if you're 15, you got 6 A's on your last report card, and have not been in trouble, you'd get $67.50 a month ($16 a week). If you're 14, got 3 A's, and were punished twice in the last month, you would only get $15.75 for the month ($4 a week).

Obviously, the multipliers can be adjusted to suit any economic status or expectation, but I think that by and large, this formula will do the trick.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I'm Back, Baby!

Well, it's been 8 months with no posts. A lot of things can change in 8 months, and it has been a wild ride.

That new job I wrote about didn't work out. In fact, about a month after I took it, I decided to go back to the place I worked before taking it (and incidentally, had an offer on the table from that employer) but I allowed myself to be talked into staying. (Note to self: don't play poker with any salesmen.)

Actually, I contemplated a witty title for a post that would address my work woes: "Jobs that Sux Redux". While careful avoiding any libel or slander, I will say that I wish that company well, and if they happen to succeed, it will be despite their business practices - not because of them. Of course, that shouldn't be too surprising when you have a 27-year-old CEO with a degree in theology and no business experience. Enough said.

These days I'm putting in my time as Director of Web Development for a company that really is quite good. I've been here several months, which in my experience is long enough to know whether or not I like it. I predict I'm going to settle down and be here for a while.

Perhaps more significantly, Chantay decided to part company with me. We are keeping things as amicable as possible under the circumstances, which is always a good thing. Although I now wince a little when I think of some of the things I said in this blog over the past few years, I don't believe in rewriting history; therefore I do not intend to delete any of posts that discuss her. The immutable truth is that each of those posts was an accurate reflection of my feelings at the time. Whether or not we still feel that way is irrelevant.

She is now going her way, and I am going mine. I couldn't tell you where her path leads, but I sincerely hope she is happy & safe, and ultimately finds whatever it is she's looking for.

The road ahead for me includes a 2-week vacation to take a cruise through the eastern Mediterranean. My flight leaves on Sunday, and I'm extremely excited. After several months as a single parent, I sorely need the time away. (I'll write more about the cruise later.)

Both of my children now live with me (my son is now 13, and my daughter is 15). I could probably write a novel on how that came to be, but it is a story for another day.

For now, check on me from time to time and you may be surprised. Since I'm feeling like my old self again, I'm bound to have the same rants, quirky observations, and comical whines.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Citizenship Test

While reading the news this morning, I happened upon an example citizenship test at MSNBC. Always one to test my knowledge against the status quo, I decided to take the test just to see how much I know. Here's how it worked out:

Sadly, most native-born Americans perform quite poorly on these tests. Even more frighteningly, those same people vote. That got me thinking (always a dangerous prospect).

We make people take a test before we allow them the privilege of driving. Indeed, most professional career fields require some tested proof of proficiency in the field before one is allowed to practice the trade. Why not require voters to demonstrate a basic knowledge of our system of government as part of the voter registration process?

Pundits will point out that such a system would unfairly burden the poorly educated, those who speak English as a second language, and the mentally "challenged". To those pundits I say this: why unfairly burden the entire nation with ill-informed decision making in the voting booth? Wouldn't the whole world be a little better off if the most powerful nation did a better job of selecting leadership?

Frankly, I think choosing the person who will have the power to change the world is a bit more important than unplugging my toilet. I admit there is a key difference, though. My plumber has to take a test and get a license before he wades into the excrement. Voters do not.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ed Goes Audio

this is an audio post - click to play

Okay -- as you may have noticed, there's an audio message embedded above (I'm not sure how that will work out with different RSS readers, so I'm sort of playing it by ear for now).

Apparently, this company has partnered with Google to provide audio blog entries, and so far, it seems pretty cool. From the blogger's point of view, I simply call their number, enter my number and PIN, and record my message. It publishes my message to my blog automatically, which means that blogging just got a lot easier.

As I point out in my audio post, I have no idea what their business model will be (how can you drive revenue when you provide a free service?) but so far, it's pretty exciting.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekend Woes

I've had some craptacular weekends in my day, but in that respect, this weekend seems exceptional. Perhaps it goes without saying that you don't spend nearly 7 years in the Army without a blown weekend or two, but even at that I'd have to place this weekend on par with spending some quality time with an IRS auditor in terms of frustration.

First, my wife left for a business trip to New York on Thursday, and she wasn't scheduled to return until Saturday morning. So the weekend lead-in is a little shot -- no biggie, right? She ended up going straight from the airport to her office on Saturday, and basically working a full day. I did get to have dinner with her on Saturday night, though, and it's a good thing, too, because she left for work again on Sunday morning and ended up working straight through until she got home this morning circa 5:30AM.

Now, I try to be understanding when these things happen (I've certainly spent my fair share of time working late). That said, because I'm also in Software Development , there are times when I can't help but feel like some of this stuff falls under the 7 P's. You know: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

So I was a bit agitated at not being able to spend a little quality time with the little lady, but I was doing okay with it (sort of -- depending on who you ask). I was managing the increased burden in the form of laundry and chores that most husbands (present company included) balk at. Then, last night, some fun things happened (and I mean the same sort of fun as having a rectal exam by an NBA allstar).

First, the cable went out. I'm not married to TV, so it doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize that with the cable goes the Internet. Okay, no sweat. I'm a man of the new millennium, so I'm just going to rotate that last load of laundry, and then head for the hay. A nice early bedtime is just what I need to get me on track for work on Monday.

I kiss my son good night, and begin my "nighttime maneuver" (this involves stripping down and jumping for the bed so the last of my clothes hit the floor about the same time I'm between the sheets -- hey, I said I was a man of the new millennium...). About midway through the process I notice a big wet spot on the bed.

At first, I think I'm about to relieve some stress with a good old-fashioned cat beating. Then I realize that unless my cat has somehow learned how to stick to the ceiling like a fly, that drip-drip-drip doesn't have feline origins. The damned roof is leaking!

Yes, I realize that roofs sometimes leak. To fully appreciate my frustration, however, you need to understand that since I renewed my lease in April, my air conditioner has broken three times (and each time it rains water into my dining room), and I haven't had the greatest luck with maintenance (which is a blog post in itself). Indeed, they came into my house a few weeks ago without any notice, and without leaving a note, and left my daughter's window all the way open (nice of me to cool the entire neighborhood -- hello electricity bill from hell). It was 10 hours before I got home to close it, and it rained pretty bad, so her floor was soaked. Ironically, maintenance had just removed a big noisy (and no doubt electricity sucking) dehumidifier that they placed after the last air conditioning fiasco.

These things in mind, I think you'll agree that my weekend wasn't so great. There is an up side, though. The best thing about having a lousy weekend is watching the expressions on the faces of the Monday morning busy-bodies in the office. "How was your weekend?" they ask with an all-too-saccharine smile. "It sucked." I tell them, all the while feeling a bit better as I amuse myself with their startled expressions. Maybe there's just a little streak of sadism in me after all.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Time Marches On

Time stands still for no man. It's been a busy 3½ months since my last post, and it occurs to me that I really need to dedicate more time to my blogs. I am now faced with the very daunting question of how to get back in the proverbial saddle with my writing.

I suppose I could start by pointing out the obvious: it's been a very busy three months indeed -- both for me personally, and in the world at large. Among other interesting changes, I accepted a position as the Director of Software Development for a litigation support company in Washington, DC. That being the case, it also seems appropriate to inject the standard caveat: any opinions I express here are entirely my own, and may not accurately reflect the views of my employer or coworkers.

I would also like to point out that, while it's true that most people change jobs because they are not happy, that was not the case here. No, you won't find this move chronicled in any future Jobs that Suck post. In this case, it came down to a simple question of opportunity. While I was treated well by my former employer (and have an invitation to return), here I have the chance to really build something. Call me naive, but I still think I can change the world.

Now that I've cautiously dipped my toe back into the blogging waters and I can see the temperature is fine, I think I'll be more comfortable diving back in. Watch for more rants, raves, and quips in the near future!