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:

My steps to health usually top 15,000 every day, Fitbit says

I wear out running shoes. Often.

I have a secret to share with you.

Well, it’s more of an obsession, truth be told.

You see, for years – for decades, really – I’ve been sneaking away from home every day. From work at the office, too.

Sometimes, when I’m on family outings, I quietly step away, attracting as little attention as I can.  Then 15 or 20 minutes later, I return as if nothing happened.

Sometimes, I get sideways looks as sweat drips from my forehead.  I expect some people wonder what’s going on.

I know better, but I still catch myself pausing and hoping nobody notices my repeated absences. 

Some days, I joke about it.  Some days, I might call it my 10K compulsion.

I’m talking 10,000 steps.  Every day. That’s what many “medical experts” online say everyone should walk daily to boost their health. There’s now research suggesting around 5,000 steps a day is an effective minimum daily walking goal.

Usually, I log triple that number by bedtime: 15-K a day. 

Sometimes I top 20,000 steps by midnight.  What a rush!

I own my daily pace.  Honestly, I can’t say my Fitbit made me do it.

Walking the land

I’ve been a serial walker since I was a teen. I’ve never seemed to be able to take a step back.

I remember walking the concession roads around the farm where I grew up, sun or rain.  

Swayze farm near Elfrida, in Hamilton Ontario
The Swayze Farm at Elfrida, in rural Hamilton, Ontario, around 1995

Or I walked the laneway to the back forty on sultry southern Ontario summer evenings.  

I must have known every rut and ditch as I walked through the fields.

In summer, I’d have Blue Jays baseball games playing my knock-off Walkman. 

Sadly, I wasn’t one of the cool kids sporting my iPod of the ’80s.  

I always bought a portable cassette player with an AM radio in it. 

In winter, my cheap headphones — the ones with orange foam ear pads— were tucked under my toque.

I listened to the Maple Leafs lose games while watching for patches of ice underfoot.

Me and my running shoes – we have always been a great pair.

This battered old Fitbit is a constant walking companion.

Today, I am taking steps to validate my compulsion. Normalize it, perhaps.

There are two dogs at home that need walks.  Lots of walks.  Long walks. 

They don’t bark when they are tired. 

Nor do I, so it appears.

I proudly walk by my own path today, knowing that medical science vindicates my obsession. 

Here’s what Prevention Magazine says about regular walking.

Improve your mood

Not only does a walk help me cool off after an argument, walking also helps me manage the dark days of winter.  

If I don’t walk, I notice the world drags me down.  And that’s my cue to grab the dogs’ leads and poop bags—and saddle up for a long walk.

Or return an overdue library book to the night drop slot, a 30-minute round trip from home on foot.  

After the walk, I’m not even bummed by the overdue fine.

Or the fact the Leafs lost.  Again.

Creative juices start flowing

I like to walk first thing in the morning, before breakfast.  Ten minutes around the block wakes me up. It gets me thinking constructively about the day ahead. 

Later, if I hit writer’s block at work, I leave from my desk for a stroll around the neighbourhood.  

As I wander, I let my mind wander. Like writer and artist Austin Kleon, who is an avid walker.

Walking works wonders for my creativity.

Lower risk of chronic disease

Regular walkers have lower blood sugar levels. 

They have lower blood pressure levels. 

And a 30 percent lower risk of cardio-vascular disease.

I’m counting on that.

The Cleveland Clinic praises walking to help you lose weight, too.

You’ll be more ‘regular

Ahem.

Yes, I do think walking helps keep my bowels working like clockwork.  

Thank you for asking.

Ahem.

And here’s a walking bonus I never thought of before…

Your goals become reachable

It’s all about routine, Prevention says.  Once you have one healthy routine, you’re more likely to continue it and adopt other healthy behaviours.  

And that will help you reach other personal goals.

But I wonder.  

When I don’t have an overdue library book or the dogs hide from me behind the furniture, 

Oh.  Excuse me for just a second.  Let me tap my Fitbit.

Hmmm—only 8,903 steps.  

Please excuse me. I’ll be right back.

Anyone like to join me for a little walk around the block in the fresh air?

But first, can someone direct me to the nearest washroom?

Please?

Thank you.

This is adapted from a project speech presented on Oct. 12, 2018, at Cambridge Toastmasters.

Speech writing: Audience first, then tell your story

Man speaking in front of a seated audience
Man speaking in front of a seated audience in a lecture hall.

If you want to be a better public speaker, start by listening.

Effective speech writing is all about knowing who you are talking to, and giving them what they want – or need – to hear.

It’s a hard lesson for me to learn – especially when there’s a police officer in plain clothes staring you down.

One day, somewhere back in mid-2002, I was asked to speak at a lunchtime Rotary club meeting about journalism and the news business.  Easy enough, I thought.  At that point, I just received my 20-year pin serving the trenches at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper. I was the newly appointed editor and feeling pretty good about myself.

Great stories are good, but

With all those years a reporter, photographer and editor, I knew I had great stories.

I cobbled together a speech about how I approached the news business, how I made a living asking questions. How I found stories.  How I shaped those stories for my audience.  And, of course, What was the weirdest thing I ever wrote about?

(It was a guy who brought a potato into the newsroom one day, looking for a story.  The spud looked exactly like former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s face and head.  Seriously.  Photo and story for the front page, please).

Anyway, my speech went well enough. I told few more stories while neglecting to delve deeply into why one story gets published and another doesn’t. 

I had my speech all written down – and kept reading from it behind the podium.  No point-form notes to I could keep my eyes on the audience. I droned on for 10 minutes. I didn’t vary down my tempo and use inflection to emphasize important points.   

I didn’t think through who was in the audience. Who might put their hand up in the question and answer session?

Be prepared

I broke a basic rule of journalism: be prepared.

Rotarians? What could go wrong? All I had to do was call the organizer and ask who the club members are.  Or more accurately, remind me who was likely to be in the audience.  I knew most of them from writing stories about what they’ve done in town over the years.

Local business leaders who have learned how to ask good questions, because their livelihood depends on good information.  The crowd gathered in the Galt Country Club meeting room was also salted with other community leaders, people who also knew how to ask good questions. After all, nobody builds credibility for their personal brand by talking all the time.

None of that was in my mind as set myself up as the target in the question-and-answer session.  I started to recognize the faces as they asked me about stories I had covered, softball questions about why the media does what it does and why I like my job.  (Answer:  I love asking questions).

Then she stood up and greeted me politely.  I wished I remembered she was a one-time homicide investigator and was now commander of the local police detachment. Super friendly.  With a detective’s mindset.  I didn’t see it coming.

“I’ve heard there’s a Code of Ethics for Journalists – so why didn’t you talk about that in your speech.  What do you say to people who don’t think journalists have any ethics?”

Busted.

Answer obvious questions

I wasn’t ready for an obvious question.  I stammered and wobbled at the podium, before making a half-hearted explanation. It was ugly.

I wasn’t ready with a story to tell a personal story around the never-ending public discourse of ethics in journalism. Something everyone seems to have an opinion on.  Something that’s been simmering for centuries, long before people started accusing the media of creating “Fake News.”

I learned.  Always remember: audience first is the smart way to approach speech writing.

Listen to what they say — and imagine what they are likely to ask.

Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Dec. 13, 2018.


Please use the form below to contact Kevin Swayze, so he can put his business storytelling experience to work helping you find, shape and share your message with impact.

Contact Kevin by email or contact him by mobile phone: 226-924-4237.

My birthday gift? Learning how storytelling shapes me

My media pass – now cancelled.

I gave myself a special birthday gift as I turned 51 years old.  

I left my job and accepted a buyout.  A “voluntary departure,” as it was called by Metroland, owner of The Waterloo Region Record

To me, it was a “self-administered layoff” from 30 years of journalism. My dream job was leaving me, so I decided to leave it first. Freedom, right?

One problem:  I had no fallback plan.  So for a reliable guy who’s always sought stability and comfort – I’m a stick-in-the-mud Taurus, after all – 2016 was kind of a freaky year.

No worries, I thought. I never seriously considered falling into a mid-life crisis, although the thought of a buying little red convertible sounds sweet. I already like riding motorcycles and gawking at airplanes.

Instead, of panicking – well, at least not panicking too much – I thought about how I got to age 51. Who am I? How have I handled challenges over the years?

It was clear to me I got to where I am by asking questions and sharing stories.

My farm story

I grew up on a farm just south of Hamilton.  Up on the Mountain, if you know the area.  The farm is just east of the country crossroads of Elfrida, where Highways 20, 53 and 56 meet.

The Swayze farm, at Elfrida, near Hamilton, Ontario.

I used to attend the little red-brick Elfrida United Church in the village. It was just across the highway from an Esso gasoline station and a Voyageur restaurant where truckers and school buses always stopped.  

Today, Hamilton is overrunning the place: townhouses are on marching across farm fields. The little church closed and was converted into a restaurant. Beside the former church are liquor and beer stores.  My fire-and-brimstone, teetotaling Methodist grandmother must be spinning in her grave in the Swayze Family Cemetery, nearby on Highway 56. 

The Swayze Family cemetery, Highway 56, south of Hamilton, Ont.

When I stand where I expect to be buried, I see superstores emblazoned with names like Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Fortinos. I always think “There goes the neighbourhood.”

But if I turn to the right, I see the farm where I worked in the fields every summer. Everybody pitched in working in the fields.  I remember how money was tight.  My mom made many of the clothes my little brother and I wore to public school.  My dad milked cattle morning and night, every day of the year. I remember no holiday trips when I was young.

Self-reliance grows

Farm life made me self-reliant. I watched my dad repair equipment in the fields, pour concrete around the barns and fix the roof of a century-old farmhouse.  I watched my mother make quilts and wedding dresses to earn a little extra money. I’m not a half-bad cook: she taught me well. 

I devoured history books as a kid – and still do when I make the time as an adult. How-to books are now my go-to reading as an adult. Storytelling teaches me how to design things, build things and repair things.

My love of photography landed me a job in a camera store at age 16. I was researching and writing after school, too, making a few bucks selling photos and stories to aviation magazines in England and the United States.

In high school, I was thinking about going to university and earning an engineering degree.  I dreamed about designing things and building things.  Then I ran square into my nemesis: three math courses in Grade 13. I worked hard to pass them all and barely scraped through to pass algebra. That experience prompted me to scrap any plans for a math-laden career, such as engineering. 

Journalism is the way

Instead, I studied Journalism at Conestoga College in Kitchener. All the while, I continued working at camera stores to help pay my bills while in school. I graduated with honours in 1986 and started working at a little business magazine in Guelph.

Kevin Swayze media card 1987
Kevin Swayze’s 1987 media card while working at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper.

A year later, I landed a job at the Cambridge Daily Reporter. I liked getting paid to chase fire trucks and ask people questions. I also learned how to apply my rudementary math skills to explain city budgets and tax increases. I learned to use questions and storytelling so numbers made sense to me and my readers.

Redheads

Along the way, I fell for a redhead in Hespeler. Christine and I were blessed with three children: Ben, Alison and Theresa.  Then life got complicated and I learned how resilient I am.

Christine was diagnosed with cancer in June 2003.  The Reporter closed three months later, as her chemotherapy continued.  I landed work at The Record a few months after that. Christine beat back her cancer by late 2004, but it returned in summer 2005. I cared for her at home so our children kids had every moment they could with their mom, before she died on Boxing Day 2005.

I raised three kids on my own. Kids never complained about my cooking that I remember.

I continued volunteering at the Cambridge YMCA as a fitness instructor, too. I still volunteer at the Y today.

Cambridge YMCA, 250 Hespeler Road, Cambridge.

Four years ago, I met Kim.  She is a redhead. I am a lucky man.

Today, we live just off Blair Road in Cambridge, Ontario. My children are all – more or less – launched from the house, working or at university. Kim’s son, Adam, is a bit younger and spends every other week with us as he nears his teen years.

There’s also two dogs, and a minimum of three cats at the house any given day.

Looking back over how I got here, all this storytelling to myself is comforting. I’m not too worried about bailing on my job before it bailed on me.  And to be honest, I kind of liked not working most of spring, summer and fall of 2016, after I left newspapers behind.

In between sending out resumes in 2016, I did a little freelance writing, too. I felt like I was a teenager again, telling and selling stories.

Public speaking is storytelling

I joined Cambridge Toastmasters after I left the Record. I have my dad’s ability to talk with anyone, anytime.  I’m also not bad at applying my storytelling skills to writing speeches and delivering presentations.

I also started volunteering with the Mill Race Folk Festival in 2016. I stared by taking care of publicity and later joined the board. I put my storytelling experience to work while applying for private and government grants to help pay for the free-admission community music event on the Civic Holiday Weekend in August.

Sorting out signs at the 2016 Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music, in Cambridge, Ont.

By the end of the 2026, I landed a 10-week gig as a communications officer at McMaster University.  A good start to a new career, perhaps?

Maybe that’s the birthday gift I gave myself that year. The confidence to seek out a new future. I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is the text of an icebreaker speech project presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Jan. 5, 2017.

Cookies, wine and bitter beer tell all my secrets

Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”

George Bernard Shaw

I agree.  But why do I like certain foods?  And not others?

Not to worry: I never let such thoughts interrupt my eating.

It seems I’m not alone in my pondering over puddings, potatoes or perogies.  

Scientists also take a keen interest in what we eat and how we eat and what it all means.  

Here’s a taste of what I’ve uncovered about how people interact with food. Maybe it will help me prepare for my next dinner gathering. 

When you pick up a gingerbread man, do you rip off his head first?

Guess what:  that probably means you’re a leader. 

Seriously.  

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, Neurological Director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the first bite of the cookie can provide insight your underlying personality. He says so in 2010 research on behalf of Dunkin Donuts.

Here’s how the cookie crumbles. 

Heat bite first?  “It indicates an achievement-oriented individual, a natural leader, who won’t take no for an answer,” he says.

Go for the right arm off the top? You’re skeptical and pessimistic.

Left arm?  Creative and extroverted.

Amputate the legs in a pre-emtive strike?  Good news, my friend: “you tend to be more sensitive, reveling in the company of others” 

I wonder what psychiatrist Sigmund Freud would say about all this. 

Maybe a gingerbread man should come with a little couch.  And a free counselling session?

What to drink with our cookies?

How about some wine? Don’t laugh. I’ve done it.

It turns out wine drinkers have a tough time figuring out how much they actually pour, compared to what they planned. So say researchers at Cornell University.  They have a wine program there. 

Photo by K15 Photos on Unsplash

I haven’t been able to sort out if red wine is indeed better than white wine. But I have found out if you drink white wine, you will probably pour more than you think you did.

Researchers told college students in the test to pour a standard wine serving. That’s five ounces.  

Then, researchers put 10-ounce glasses in front of them. No, the college students didn’t all pour 10 ounces.  

On average, white wine drinkers tended to pour about 10 percent more wine than did students with red wine bottles. Average pour was around five-point-five ounces. That’s better than I would do.

The reason?  The low colour contrast of white wine in a clear glass can make it difficult to choose the appropriate level.

Those same researchers – after pouring wine all day long — also discovered that the style of glass you use is important to how much you think you pour. 

People also tend to pour about 12 percent more wine – red or white — in a wide, red wine glass.  People tend to consistently pour less wine into in narrow, white wine glasses. 

It seems most people can’t calculate volumes in their heads.  Instead, they think a narrower glass gets fuller faster, as the level rises faster. At least the first time they pour.

And people tend to pour about 10 percent more wine into a glass held into someone’s hand. Moving target, perhaps?

When drinking wine in moderation, here’s the checklist:

Stick to red wine

Pour it into a narrow, white wine glass.

And make sure the glass sitting on the table when you do.  

That’s a lot to remember. Maybe it’s time to consider other popular beverages instead. 

But here’s hoping you don’t like both coffee and dark, bitter beers like I do. 

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Apparently, liking both beer and coffee makes me a psychopath.  Researchers have found people who like bitter foods were also more likely to score highly in measures of psychopathy, sadism, and aggression.  

“Taken together, the results suggest that how much people like bitter-tasting foods and drinks is stably tied to how dark their personality is,” the study says.

Apparently, an affinity for bitter foods was a better predictor of personality than any of the other tastes in the research effort. Like sweet.  Or sour.

With all that in mind, let’s plan my next dinner party.

To get a good reading on the personalities of everyone who arrives, I’ll pass out gingerbread men at the door.  Then watch carefully.  And take a few notes. 

As a responsible host, I’ll pull aside the “leaders,” ask them set aside their decapitated cookies, and ask them to pour white wine.  Only into narrow glasses sitting on the table, so nobody drinks too much.

If people start asking for coffee or dark beer, I’ll be extra careful where I put the little seating cards around the table.  I’ll make sure to mix up the psychopaths with sensitive, amicable guests still munching on the legs of the gingerbread men. 

What could go wrong?

And after all that, I’ll hope people really like my meatloaf.  Inoffensive, comfort food. A warm hug kind of meal. 

Unless I invited vegetarians.

Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, January 26, 2017