Jargon and Spam Pollute Word Reefs

Thanksgiving is almost here. So the poultry purveyor at my local market wrote to say that he would “defiantly have turkeys.” What a relief! Sadly, obviously, words aren’t his “strong suite.” Nor are they the special talent or concern of most people anymore. No one seems to care that words, like corals, are suffering and can no longer live happily together, whether in twosomes or tomes.

Clauses, sentences, paragraphs, books—the reefs words inhabit—are under attack. In hardcopy and online, word pollution is rampant. Bad grammar, misspellings, adjective-noun hybrids, and verbosity threaten the habitats of language. Wherever words hang out, ill-chosen punctuation and emoticons festoon them, like cassette tape on a colony of the Crochet Coral Reef. Even the World Wide Web, the Great Barrier Reef of the new world of words, struggles under our creative runoff and virtual trash.

Two of my pet word pollutants are jargon and spam. The first masquerades as healthy language in print and online; the second floods email and comment balloons.

Jargon, lingo peculiar to a profession or group, obfuscates meaning by puffing it up. Think excessive levels of nutrients from fertilizer fouling pristine bays. Spam (never mind the spiced, potted meat) is irrelevant or inappropriate language on the Internet. Envision sewage flowing into rivers and oceans.

Have you looked for work lately? Here’s the sort of listing that makes editors and writers run, not apply:

JargonCorp, a next-generation, growth-oriented company with a fast-paced, deadline-oriented environment, seeks to improve its coordination and facilitation of cause-marketing initiatives and activations and develop multi-channel communications campaigns with brand awareness. We are looking for a dynamic self-starter with cutting-edge insights to join our team of blue-sky, out-of-the box thinkers with end-user perspectives. You will develop a narrative arc for episodic information sharing, as well as tactical strategies and technical implementation to leverage enhanced cross-platform functionality.

What? Are you going to read more of the “role profile” and “accountabilities”? Do you care that they care about “E&D” or want to ensure their “list hygiene”? Goodness, these words are unhappy and individually diseased!

They are only one step away from the Web’s effluent, spam. Hundreds of passages like the following opened my site to a hacker and almost killed it before its first birthday:

Penelope [sneaker brand] dvd website cranberries [a medicine for men Americans sent to Afghanistan] trucks stuffing crayons …

Heavens! Not a single comma!

Google buried Sebold Communications half alive. But miracles happen …

And speaking of Thanksgiving, here’s a shout out to WordPress Web Developer Brian Jessee of Jessee Productions. Since September, he has, dare I say, “securitized” and helped optimize seboldcommunications.com for Google and Bing. Thanks for cleaning up my spot on the reef (errrr, Web), Brian!

Setting Themes

Where Health, Environment and the Arts Meet is the slogan of Sebold Communications. It’s also the theme of my Web site and blog, the Bamboo Pen. The pen–chicory flower trademark graphically embodies my current work and writing, the way I see the world.

Like you perhaps, I enjoy putting together different fields and arts and breaking down barriers between peoples, even species. Interdisciplinary, intercultural programs and publications, when well designed and managed, make lasting impressions on audiences and can ease relations between political opposites. Behind every success lies a unifying idea, or theme.

Here are four steps you can take to develop themes for programs, publications, and businesses:

Imagine

Start with the message you want to impart or the subject you want to showcase—in other words, what you want to learn or accomplish and what you think might excite others. Don’t be wowed by the reputation of a speaker, artist, or writer just yet. Later you can choose a celebrity to present your program or compose a book chapter. For now, turn on music that evokes your topic. Get enthused about your idea. Do some research online or in specialized libraries.  Record all your thoughts. How can you weave together a series of programs or blog posts? A performance and a publication? A health presentation and a holiday celebration?

Before settling on a theme and tagline for Sebold Communications, I did a lot of thinking. In previous work, I had seen arts and cultural programs foster peace, environment, and health. I decided to write blog posts about not only environmental health, but also arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

I got out crayons, colored pencils, a sketchpad. I found my old bamboo pen from Islamic calligraphy classes with Mohamed Zakariya. I paged through wildflower books. My mind wandered. Which colors would best suggest health and the environment; which flower, the world? After some bizarre drawings, I came up with a trademark and representative colors. To read up on Asclepius, I went to the Library of Congress with my reader’s card. And for a season, I took mock blog notes at art exhibits, science fairs, and international development conferences.

Visualize

How can you bring alive your ideas? Can you find a funder whose values reinforce your theme? Choose your speakers or authors now. Picture the room or the finished publication. How will people move through the conference room, negotiate the layout of your online or print report? Will there be a bottleneck at the pastry table? Will a well-placed graph enhance readers’ understanding of your project results? Place the tables and chairs or chapters and pictures with the takeaway in mind. You want to make sure your in-person and home audiences enjoy themselves enough to stay for the whole program or read the entire book. You want them to absorb your message.

For Sebold Communications, I had to design an attractive Web site in concert with a graphic artist and a Web site developer. I visited sites of Webby Award winners in the arts and sciences to see how they laid out their homes on the Internet. I wanted to unpack the trademark on the inner pages, create mini-themes by using different chicory drawings on the services panels and the bamboo pen on the blog, or writing, page. Then I had to learn WordPress to compose pages and posts. At that point, I decided to alternate topical pieces with somehow-related articles on writing, editing, programs, or languages. For eight posts introducing the elements of my trademark and the format of my blog, I wanted photographs in blues, greens, and yellows.

[Update: In January 2016, Gallop Web Services helped me redesign the site to make it mobile and more useful to visitors. I also decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events and features on practitioners and scholars in the four interdisciplinary fields mentioned above. Tell me what you think!]

Publicize

Who is your audience? Where do they get their information? Do they read only professional publications and blogs? Or does your program or publication have broad appeal? Should you advertise on radio and TV or YouTube and Vine? Which languages should you use? Should you bother with hard-copy brochures and press releases? Where can you mingle with your potential audience? At conventions or shared workplaces? Package your theme accordingly.

Which social media do your readers use? There are so many to explore. I signed up for LinkedIn early on, then Twitter and Google+.  LinkedIn reinforces my business, and Twitter reflects my blog. Most of the people I work with are at least on LinkedIn. Those who work in relief use Twitter, and those who manage programs gather in Google Hangouts. Communications and marketing experts know know that social media drive curious visitors to their organizations’ Web sites, where they can find publications and calendars.

Give

Think of something you can give free to your audience or readers, something that will match your program, publication, or business. With a souvenir, they’ll remember the experience longer and more fondly. Your report won’t get lost in a pile.

If you plan a program on the history of the camel as I once did, offer attendees camel burgers on toothpicks! In your next performance program, include a seek-and-find word puzzle whose solution underscores your theme. Watch early birds find the answers and stay in their seats at intermission. Are you doing a program on hand washing? Give out tiny soaps as health educators do.

At Sebold Communications, I haven’t quite gotten to this step. I’m not too sure about the white papers marketers advocate. Maybe I’ll write a blue or green one! Offering people free help with a tough sentence or two didn’t fly through Twitter. For now, I’ll stick with providing writing samples through my blog or editing a page or two from the middle of a prospect’s report. I might volunteer to organize a lecture.

Now that you’ve suffered my advice on setting themes and had the behind-the-scenes tour of my business and blog, let’s explore where health, environment, and the arts meet. The next post will in some ways be my first. I’ll write about the project that inspired me to blog: Environmentally concerned artists have crocheted coral reefs to call attention to the beauty and plight of real ones in oceans around the world.

After I spin that much shorter yarn, I’ll examine the structure of sentences and paragraphs. After all, words live closely together like corals, either happily or unhappily.

So stay tuned. Tell us about your creative process. Share news of health, environment, and the arts!

Blue-Pencil

\ˈbl-üˈpen(t)-səl\ vt

Sometimes when we sit down to write, we realize we’ve researched a topic too much. We’ve uncovered lots of fascinating tidbits. Our heads are jammed with precious facts, like jewelry boxes brimful of lapis lazuli or chests bursting with indigo garb. However we can, we try to fit every detail into our first draft. We just can’t live without seeing all those treasured finds in print. But let’s be honest. We’ve accumulated too much. Some of it has to go.

Time for a blue pencil–wielding (or blue Track Changes–using) blue penciller to blue-pencil our manuscript! We need an editor who specializes not only in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but also in shortening text or deleting extras that simply don’t belong.

Before posting Blue, the Color, I did the job myself. I’d read tons of material—books, articles, and museum brochures—without even consulting the Internet. Blue is a popular subject. The week after I offered my take, the New York Times published an article and a sidebar on it.

Can you guess why I didn’t include the following views on blue?

  • Although blue and green are found in nature, they are absent from Paleolithic and Neolithic art.
  • Fourteen centuries ago, the sculptors of the Buddha of Bamiyan were the first to use lapis lazuli as paint.
  • Probably unaware of native Indigofera species, Eliza Lucas (later Pinckney) had the first successful Indian indigo harvest in the United States in 1744.
  • In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi staged his first act of civil disobedience by supporting Indian farmers who wanted to grow rice, not the indigo demanded by English planters.
  • Only in the late fifteenth century did mapmakers color the seas blue. And even today, as Radiolab made clear, not everyone thinks the sky is blue.

You see? By writing a second post, I got to keep all I knew on blue!

And now I fear we must bid blue and this how-to adieu …

Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory flowers, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

Track Changes

Islamic calligraphers say, “When the pen cries, the paper laughs.” Well, let’s just say both were crying in my case. Sobbing. And I was copying only the Arabic alphabet, certainly nothing holy.

By the end of the class, my beautiful, burnished sheet was covered with the teacher’s perfect red letters and my carefully executed black blobs. He had to correct nearly every one. Track Changes, ancient style. But I persisted, out of love for the sun and moon letters of Arabic. I learned a lot. I’d like to say I improved by the end of the course.

For good or ill, Word’s Track Changes has replaced old-fashioned stets, caps, and “sp-ses.” Despite the mess of bloody red comment balloons, insertions, and deletions (moldy blue ones, if two editors have reviewed a manuscript), Track Changes has made editing easier. It’s better than proofreader’s marks made on hardcopy with colored pencils—or quill, even bamboo, pens. Draft to draft, it wastes less paper, results in less solid waste. Well, maybe. [Wink]

Do you have questions about how Track Changes works? An experience you’d like to share?  Has it helped? Driven you crazy? After all, no one should have to cry!