Putting your best words forward

“Prose is words in the best order. Poetry is the best words in the best order.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge made this statement well before social media, text messaging or mobile websites existed. But choosing the best words to convey a message is always a smart idea, especially when it comes to online communications.

Reading online involves scanning for keywords. Readers search for terms that catch their interest instead of giving all words equal attention.

With online writing, messages need to be distilled into a headline, a tweet or a Facebook status. Using words that don’t quite mean what you want to say can result in miscommunication, or in reaching an unintended audience.

Here are some words I’d like to eliminate from my own online writing:

Great
I blame my teachers for this one. Well, at least partially. Many of them told me to stop using good to describe things. I somehow exchanged it with great without them noticing it was practically just as meaningless. There’s almost always a better word than great.

Amazing
I have a bad habit of describing things as being amazing when they are not even close to actually being amazing. For instance, a friend will say they had a delicious dinner last night. “Amazing!” I’ll reply, complete with exclamation point. But there’s nothing amazing about it. I am not amazed. Luckily, my penchant for amazing is limited to social media and emails. Still, I’d like to stop using it so frivolously.

Currently
This one doesn’t come up a lot, but it’s usually pointless when it does. Currently and I generally come in contact whenever I set up my out-of-office email alert. For some reason, my instinct is to write “I’m currently away from the office” when “I’m away from the office” will do. It’s sort of a given I’m referring to the present.

Important
Of all the words I’ve listed, important is the one I have the least problem with. I’m not sure it shows up in my writing a lot. The problem is when I do use it, I feel it has little meaning. Maybe I think so many other people overuse important and it’s become a little bit weak. Even significant or essential seem to have more weight.

Love
If I didn’t edit my work, it might look like I loved everything. “I love tea!” “I love Sunday mornings!” “I love my blue cardigan!” But I don’t truly love these things. I do like them quite a bit, but using love so much takes away from the word’s power. I think it’s all right to use love in this context…sometimes. But I don’t want to overdo it.

It annoys me when I see the above words in my writing. I try to catch them before it’s too late, before they are sent into the online world, forever.

But I don’t want to be too hard on myself. All words have a place. It’s just a matter of putting the right words in the right place at the right time. And taking a few extra minutes to read—not scan—before sharing those words with the rest of the world.

Social media, slang and dictionaries

There were many words I didn’t know when I was younger. Whenever I came across an unfamiliar term I’d ask my parents what it meant. They always told me the same thing: look it up. If I really wanted to know—and I usually did—I would take the dictionary down from the shelf in the living room and find the definition.

A couple of decades later and, although I’ve tried, I still haven’t learned all the words. I use dictionaries quite a bit. Sometimes it’s for work, but often it’s for personal use. I usually find what I’m looking for, but things get tricky when it comes to slang.

I don’t use a lot of new slang, but I don’t have anything against it. However, there are many people who don’t think slang belongs in the dictionary.

 

But words aren’t added into the dictionary arbitrarily. Lexicographers conduct thorough research to determine if a word should enter the dictionary or not. A word or term must demonstrate common use and a history within the English language.

 

 

 

Increasing activity on social media sites shows why dictionaries continue to be important. Acronyms are constantly being created. (There was lots of discussion when OMG and LOL were entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in March.) Words already established in our vernacular have developed new meanings. Facebook’s friend and Twitter’s follow are two examples.

Hopefully authoritative texts such as the OED will continue to define slang. I want to understand what people are saying; that’s what it comes down to. But no matter how hard I’m laughing out loud at that funny thing you wrote, I’ll still comment with a ha-ha.

Getting published via Facebook status update

If there’s something you want to do, you’ll be more likely to do it if you write it down or tell someone. This isn’t exactly how Go the F— to Sleep came to be, but the book exists because of one fateful Facebook post written last June.

It started when Adam Mansbach, a writer, updated his status after his young daughter wouldn’t go to sleep: “Look out for my forthcoming book, Go the F— to Sleep.” The status was just a joke, meant to express his frustration. But the update drew lots of attention in the form of “likes” and comments.

Mansbach made the book a reality. He wrote the story in the style of a children’s book but with adults as the intended audience. Akashic Books agreed to publish it.

What began as a joke became an internet sensation. A PDF of the book was leaked and went viral. It became so popular that the official release date was moved from October to June 14.

It’s fascinating to see social media have an impact like this. While it’s common knowledge that Facebook and Twitter are important tools for marketing and promotion, this shows how they can do even more. Social media was central to the formation of Go the F— to Sleep; it wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

OK, so it’s not Mansbach’s Facebook page that helped create the book, but it’s the people who visited the page who did. Collaboration and feedback are important for the development of any great idea. And social media makes it easier and faster for people to get a discussion going.

If we take a chance and put our ideas out there—even just small nuggets of ideas—someone out there will see them. Our online friends might add to the ideas, suggest a change, or offer informative criticism. They might see the brilliance that we never knew was there.

Poetry and YouTube

Remember life before YouTube? I do. Things weren’t that much different, but one incident comes to mind. It’s the time I hunted down the audio of one of my favourite poets.

During my university years, I started reading a lot of poetry. But there’s something special about hearing a poet read his or her own work, so I often searched for audio of poets I liked. I had a fair amount of luck with this, finding many recordings of poets on CD or on the internet. But I had difficulty tracking down anything from Philip Larkin.

I asked around, looking for help with my search. I contacted various publishers and stores. In the end, after a lot of time and effort, I came across one audio clip of Larkin reading “Aubade.” A couple of years later, I found out through YouTube that some recordings of Larkin were rediscovered.

 

It’s pretty awesome that YouTube has made these types of searches easier. Every so often, I’ll spend some time on YouTube searching for clips of poets reading their work. At the same time, the months I spent searching for audio of Larkin makes for a bit of a better story, even if does expose the depths of my nerdiness.

Here are some other poets reading their poems:

Frank O’Hara

 

Langston Hughes

 

Mark Strand

 

Sylvia Plath

Revisiting the joy of Joyce, one tweet at a time

Even though I studied English in university, I haven’t read Ulysses by James Joyce. I meant to, but it wasn’t in the curriculum, so it’s remained on my “to read” list ever since.

There’s good news for those of us who have yet to read this classic. On June 16, if you can find time to get on Twitter, you’ll have time to read Ulysses.

OK, it won’t be exactly the way Joyce wrote it. Volunteers from all over the world will narrow down sections of the book to a series of tweets to celebrate Bloomsday.

This will be an interesting experiment to see what social media can do for classic literature. I still want to read Ulysses in its entirety, the way Joyce intended. But this experiment has put this more in the forefront of my mind than it was, say, a month ago.

Maybe social media will increase the popularity of reading classic novels. Young people who have never heard of James Joyce will run out to the nearest bookstore or library to get their hands on a book. Maybe not. But they might download the ebook.

James Joyce