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Improve Your Writing With Word Limits

Improve Your Writing With Word Limits

    Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: you are listening to a speech or presentation, or perhaps you are reading an article, an essay, or a report, and it becomes clear that the writer is using words without communicating.  Some essays, articles, and books might be pleasant to read because the language is colorful, and a speaker might make pleasant, sincere-sounding noises.  No doubt some of your my writing or speaking can be described this way.  If you don’t think yours can, just wait.  As you improve, you will expect more of yourself.  One way to improve is to practice writing with word or character limits.

    This matters in the idea-driven economy.  Consider George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”  Words mean something.  Words are important.  Orwell argues that language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  Much could be accomplished with better writing, and yet quantitative social scientists, for example, try to earn status by one-upping one another with technical and mathematical sophistication.  Humanists try to out-jargon one another.  Important ideas are obscured by the impenetrable clouds of unclarity.

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    What can you do about it?  Try writing with hard word limits.  Give yourself a lower word limit than you might find comfortable.  Allow yourself to write a rough draft that is as long as you want it to be.  Then, when you’re editing, try to cut it down below the maximum word count.  If you’re writing a 10,000 word article, try to cut it to 9,000 words.  If you’re writing an 800-word op-ed, aim for 700 words.  Trim an essay with a 1500 word limit to 1200 words.

    There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, your readers’ time is valuable.  Second, it forces you to confront trade offs in every sentence.  If you’re trying to trim a 1500 word essay into a 1200 word essay, you have to ask yourself at every juncture whether you can make the point with fewer words.  You will be shocked at how much you can tighten your prose without losing anything.  Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.

    An exercise might help.  Consider that last sentence: “Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.”  I wrote it on a plane from Omaha to Memphis while my brain was toast, and it shows.

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    Let’s improve it.  First, drop “Indeed” because it adds nothing.  “(I)mprove the quality of your exposition” is a long way of saying “make you write better.”  So let’s try some revisions:

    “Tighter, punchier prose improves your writing.” (better)

    “Tighter, punchier prose makes you write better.” (awkward and clunky—it sounds like a lesson plan for the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too)

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    Perhaps this: “Punchy prose makes good writing.”

    There’s no objective right answer.  You have to play around with it, but as the cliché says, easy writing makes for hard reading.

    You might also want to experiment with character and syllable limits. Orwell said to avoid using big words.  In the sentence we were critiquing above, “exposition” was a clunky, four-syllable way of saying “writing.”  Always use the easier word.

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    To write well requires dedicated effort.  I don’t claim to have mastered it.  Approach it like topiary.  Or bonsai gardening.  Or sculpture.  Or painting.  Or whatever.  As a writer, you are a skilled artisan.  Words are your medium, and you use hem to communicate information, evoke passions, and stir the consciences of your readers.  Get to work.  Change the world.  And take heart: you’re always improving.

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    Art Carden

    Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning” 21st Century Opportunities Learning from A Master: Review of “Bear Bryant, CEO” On “The Substance of Style” Productivity Hints from Booker T. Washington

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2020

    13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    “We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

    “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

    Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

    You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

    Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

    1. Take a step back and evaluate

    When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

    1. What is the problem?
    2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
    3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
    4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
    5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

    Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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    2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

    If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

    At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

    Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

    3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

    Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

    4. Process your thoughts/emotions

    Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

    1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
    2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
    3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
    4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

    5. Acknowledge your thoughts

    Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

    By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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    Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

    6. Give yourself a break

    If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

    7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

    A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

    Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

    After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

    8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

    As Helen Keller once said,

    “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

    Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

    9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

    In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

    1. What’s the situation?
    2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
    3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
    4. Take action on your next steps!

    After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

    10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

    A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

    Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

    For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

    11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

    No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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    12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

    No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

    13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

    There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

    After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

    Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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