Become a more effective writer by reading The Elements of Style, by William Strunk

My copy of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

I just call it Strunk and White, but the book’s proper name is The Elements of Style.

There’s no better writing guide I’ve seen for preparing stories, speeches, news releases or pretty well any English-language business or personal communication. After 40 years of writing for money as a freelancer, newspaper journalist, editor, teacher and communications consultant, it remains a go-to reference. It offers me essential advice as I continue learning and practicing my craft.

The 95-page book is a century old and still offers rock-solid advice to be heard and understood in a noisy digital world.  Write with active verbs.  Use simple words where possible.  Put short, direct sentences to work.

I’ll warn you: writing shorter takes longer.  Creating effective written communication is hard work. There’s no app for that — yet.

There is, however, an Elements of Style rap music video.

Here’s a link to the original The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, as a no-charge ebook offered by Project Gutenberg: www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm

An updated, paperback version remains in print and a copy belongs on your reference shelf. For any writer, I suggest it’s the best $9.10 (CAN) you can spend on Amazon today:

Jargon always gets my attention, but probably not how you intended

Jargon in your business writing immediately gets my attention.

It’s jarring for me when I trip unexpectedly on those special words or acronyms only understood by your in-crowd.


As an outsider, I wonder if you understand what you are talking about at the moment I am trying to understand what you are talking about.

I don’t think that’s an effective communication tactic.

Jargon hurts business communication, in print or spoken delivery. Don’t take shortcuts. Describe what’s happening. Imagine you know little or nothing about the topic. Help your audience understand, instead of annoying it.

Over 30 years as a journalist, I spent much of my time deciphering jargon in business and government reports. I don’t recall jargon ever helping me understand. I only kept reading because I was paid to keep reading.

Descriptive words, delivered in short sentences, are your friends.

Thanks to Kinda Gorman for this Twitter wisdom…

Blogging: Keep your posts on track with storytelling and the eye of a journalist

Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to improve the chances your company blog posts will actually be read by someone? 

Tell a story. Make it relatable to your audience. And have a little fun.

That’s what Scott Money does in this Metrolinx post updating the status of passenger railway track repairs:

It could easily have derailed into an overloaded recitation of work at any big construction site.
Instead, Money uses a journalistic eye to highlight details. He informs and entertains while keeping the story moving smoothly along the tracks.

I recommend you use his approach as a how-to guide in writing your own blog posts. These are efficient and effective ways of gaining and retaining audience attention. The blogging tips I highlight here are communication tactics familiar to anyone who’s written under daily deadlines in newspaper, radio or television newsrooms. They’re key tactics you can use to create compelling content for your blog.

What’s it like?

Money pulls readers into the construction zone with his selective descriptions. He invites them to ponder what it’s like as construction working with Highway 401 traffic zooming behind their backs. It’s Canada’s busiest highway roaring beside workers toiling on Canada’s busiest railway corridor.

There’s a photo with the blog post, but the construction site description provides emotional details the image can’t supply.

Money efficiently and confidently explains the what and the why. What’s happened and what’s next? Descriptions are clear and vivid. He focuses on the change and why it’s important. He salts the prose with a dash or two of railway jargon. I also liked his dinosaur reference to help readers wrap their minds around the magnitude of the project. 

Did you read all the way to the end of his blog post?

I did.

Fake News? AI fact-checking not all good news

Fake news has been around long before social media empowered it.

Every time I hear people talk about how artificial intelligence will save us all from fake news, I get uneasy.

It’s an appealing idea.  People blame social media and Google (on computers) for the unchecked spread of fake information (via computers) and demand the tech companies (computer experts) do something about the problem on social media and Google (those darn computers!).

So tech companies announce they’ll use artificial intelligence (AI, or computers that learn) to protect us from all the false news filling our social media feeds (on the little computers we keep in our pockets).

Here’s a recent pitch by a technology company to protect us from the ills of technology: Fake news detecting technology developed by DarwinAI

The Waterloo, Canada company wants to good by making AI do good for us dumb humans.  What’s not clear to me is how much the new AI is a partner with humans in identifying fake news. Or it is simply going to decide what’s truth for us? 

Fake news solution?

My fear is many people worried about fake news will grasp for new AI technology, and let computers solve our problems. Except that it’s people creating and profiting from fake news by encouraging people to use computers to solve all our problems.  And they’re using AI to create more fake news, too. Awkward.

Alternative facts” and deceptions dressed up as news has around long before computers and artificial intelligence.  People have long twisted the truth, stirred negative emotions and counted on entrenched group think to spread their version of “truth.”  Human brains react to threats in a heartbeat. It’s a hard-wired negative bias to the world around us.

That emotional self-protection circuitry is in control before the logical part of our brain processes more details for a nuanced response to a range of inputs. Think about you how you respond to rumour and innuendo in the workplace.  What does it feel like when you’re the target of gossip on the schoolyard? How effectively do you uncouple your emotions when talking politics over the dinner table? None of that will magically disappear whenever mercenary AI-powered truth detectors start scrubbing junk news from our computer screens. Learning and practicing measured responses to what I hear, see and read is the best way I know to manage a world of differing opinions. It’s also how I approach the concept of AI-sanitized storytelling in my social media feeds.

The only way I know to find truth is habitual questioning everything I see and hear.  What’s the source?  What emotion does the “news” I am told stir inside me?  What details am I missing?  Who benefits from the story I’m being told? 

If a news story stirs negative emotion in me and offers a simple answer to complex problems, I go on Fake News Alert.

Healthy scepticism

In 30 years as a newspaper journalist, I learned questions are wonderful things.  So is a healthy skepticism of everything I see and hear.  Trust, but verify.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes about how easy it is to trick our brains if we aren’t careful.  I’m a fan of his book “A Field Guide to Lies” (also published as “Weaponized Lies”) and encourage everyone to read it.  Here’s a video of Levitin speaking at Google (and I appreciate that irony):

Source: https://youtu.be/3hK7Gd8UgmI

I’m all for fighting fabricated news with all the tools smart and inventive people are able to develop.   What I am not ready to yet do is blindly trust technology to protect us from fake news.  That’s the same complacency purveyors of fake news count on to enable their strategies.

Sifting truth from facts is work.  It’s often hard work.  And it’s worth it.

I have no plans to outsource the job and blithely trust someone else — or something else — to interpret what’s truth or lies. 

What do you think about fighting fake news with artificial intelligence?