Strong Language

Engineers, scientists, and military officers often turn out good prose. Their sentences may not always be limpid, lyrical or arresting, but as writers they are capable of a clarity and precision that academics and marketers often can’t or won’t match. Their work demands it. When a software engineer writes vague instructions, her program breaks. When a scientist notes observations imprecisely, her experiment suffers. When a Green Beret commander gives a rambling order, his guys are put at risk.

But a literary theorist who expresses his ideas in clear language betrays the “expert” mystery on which tenure depends. An MBA student who avoids crass jargon might fail for seeming not to know it. A marketer who relies on simple, direct language must know exactly what the product can do for the customer–and understanding that takes effort.
Continue reading “Strong Language”

Do You Know What the Problem Is?

My gut reaction when someone offers a solution is, “That’s great, but do you know what the problem is?” The mere characterization of a product as a solution suggests that people are pushing the answer without first knowing the question!
– Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR, quoted in an ITSMA / Babson College study

Since I’ve woken up as a language crank this morning, here are links to two of my favorite writers complaining about the same lazy “solution” to a hard copywriting problem: how do you explain what a company does, and why people should care?

From Erin Kissane, whose Call to Arms is worth following:

Solution: Meaningless, Self-Indulgent, Arrogant
“Solution” is much too vague to be useful. To compound the problem, companies frequently use it in the short blurbs that describe what they do – in which clarity is essential and space precious. It’s a punt at precisely the wrong moment, and throws away a crucial opportunity to communicate something real.
Read the rest

And Tim Bray sputters:

May it visit laryngitis, halitosis and a severe stutter on those vendors who describe disk drives, network routers, printers, computers, or pretty well anything that contains silicon and plugs in, as “solutions”. A disk drive is not a solution, dammit, it’s a disk drive.

But though Tim’s business card says Director of Web Technologies at Sun, even he can’t keep this nonsense off their home page. He’s reduced to translation:

Dear world, take it from me: at Sun we sell actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions; you can safely ignore the marketing-speak.
Read on

Details Matter

Desire/Fear notebookOh, the possibilities in a blank page.

Stone Yamashita notebooks are seducing me away from the Moleskine. They’re the size of a Foreign Affairs, and have thick, creamy, tear-off pages that are lined on one side and squared on the next. The brown covers come with four provoking titles, the choice of which reveals something to you and about you. My first notebook said CH-CH-CH… on the front, and CHANGES on the back. The latest bookends DESIRE with FEAR, and I hope the sheets in between represent the middle way.

There are pages set aside for tempting lists:


Inside, there’s a tiny, printed inscription:

This is my notebook. A collection of my thoughts, ideas, some other people’s thoughts, some good stuff, some useless stuff. All written down, mostly scribbled, some stuff that I can no longer read, in an attempt to preserve a brilliant moment in time. (Or, at the time, I thought it was a brilliant moment.) I got this notebook from Stone Yamashita Partners. They always feed me. They’re the kind of office that allows dogs. They believe in the power of good thinking to invoke change. And so do I.

On my first day, two months ago, my SY[P] co-workers gave me a neat stack of San Francisco guidebooks and a household address book that they’d filled with notes on opthalmologists, florists, car repair shops, hikes, plumbers, restaurants, dentists, and babysitters. This streak of inventive empathy, made elegantly tangible, runs through the culture from the stationery cupboard to the client presentations. It’s what makes them excellent, and it makes me glad they found me.

Goodbye, She Lied

I’m moving to Kaleefornia. A company called Stone Yamashita found me, mostly through this website, and they’ve hired me as a copywriter/strategist. They do work that’s as solid, smart, and beautiful as an iPod.

“You won’t like it,” my New York friends tell me morbidly. “You can’t even drive.”

On my last business trip to San Francisco, a woman on the car rental shuttle said “Excuse me, I need to get my bag.”
    “See?” hissed my sweetest New York co-worker, seizing on this atrocity. “That’s what they’re like out here. Passive-aggressive!

My San Francisco friends tell me how much easier life is there, how people never look back. How effortlessly you can get into nature (an American phrase that always makes me think the outdoors is some new Class A drug). I tell them that when I’m evaluating cities I don’t start with how easy they are to leave, but they smile good-naturedly. I’ll learn. My friend Keith has told me for months that I have to move.
    “Every single woman we know who comes out here ends up getting married.” Is that a threat or a promise, I ask him. Ranger Tim, installed on a 5,000-acre ranch off the grid in Los Gatos, writes sorrowfully that for him, Brooklyn will always be a lost paradise.

On the flight west I stare out the window, mapping the coiling rivers below to the seat-back display on JetBlue. Is that really the Mississippi? I know so little of this country. I’ve spent a grand total of ten days in San Francisco, including a vacation eight years ago. But I have faith that I’ll come to love it. People I like very much count it as their favorite US city. I’ve already been adopted by some simpático locals, and reunited with lost pals who moved from my coast. These are the true Twin Cities.

I move on Valentine’s Day; a good day to start another urban romance.


Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.


When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.