The Chihuahua Story
One of my favorite writing stories is man against dog story. It goes like this.
A man named, Jack, and his wife shared their home with a Chihuahua, named “Loco.” As Chihuahuas are, Loco was a nervous, little dog always moving and shaking. Loco was even more nervous, when Jack waa around because the little dog was unsure of the big man’s affection.
Every time Jack came near the creature, fearful Loco would run to the kitchen. Next would come the awful, clattery tapping, of tiny Chihuahua-dog nails on the kitchen tile floor and then the stomping of industrial workboots following after. When Jack made it to the kitchen, he would loudly say, “Stop that damn racket. Stop it NOW.”
Loco would freeze at Jack’s command, spread his back legs, and proceed to pee on the yellow and gray kitchen floor.
This event happened almost every day. Jack muttered under his breath as he cleaned it up. Who knows if Loco understood words like That dog has to go . . . if it weren’t my wife’s dog . . .?
Day after day, Loco got nervous. Jack yelled. Loco peed. Jack got mad.
Finally Jack sought help from a friend who suggested that Jack immediately put the dog’s nose in the “event,” tap his nose with a newspaper, and then set the dog outside.
“That,” the friend promised, “would help the dog connect the “event” to doing it outside.” The friend cautioned Jack that it might take a few days, but to keep at it until the dog showed progress.
Jack thought it was worth a try.
So the very next time the dog peed on the floor, Jack followed the plan. He put the dog’s nose in the “event,” tapped it with a newspaper, and threw the dog out the open kitchen window — the one right over the sink. He repeated the process each time with out missing a beat.
The dog learned.
By the fifth day, the dog knew what to do.
He peed on the floor
and jumped out the window.
Readers take from our writing what their experience tells them.
So how do we make our message as clear as possible? Let me show you.
How Content Editors Read Documents
Content editors spend one pass scouring documents for this issue only. You can do it too and markedly improve the clarity of your message. You can signficantly raise the chance that the meaning you intend is the meaning that gets through by paying attention to three typical writing problems.
1.imprecise, unusual, or ambiguous words and phrases An example might be an ususual American usage for a word I like — precious. I picked up the British usage and I can’t seem to find another word that works as well. The usage I refer to means someone is overly proud or protective of something beyond it’s worth, or something is too sweet or childishly cute, as in
This children’s book is too precious for a 5-yr-old market.
They’re very precious about their education system.
In the end, I edit it out of my written work, and only use it when I’m able to explain it. Without that background, ithe word is bound to mislead readers at best
2. unclear referents I wrote about these in How Evil Pronouns Cause Arguments. An example might be a work that involves a passage about two men that might mislead in this way
So he gave him some money. and he thought it wasn’t nearly enough.
Just which guy thought that it wasn’t nearly enough? Though grammar establishes which man he should refer to, can we be sure that the author meant that guy?
3. misplaced modifiers I suppose it’s because they are usually funny that these are my favorite editorial catches. Misplaced modifiers often occur in television and advertising copy. One of my favorites is
We’ll return to find out how the history of the fun was changed by the invention of a minister. (Ministers were invented?)
Better: We’ll return to see how a minister’s invention changed the history of the gun.
Often misplaced modifiers are prepositional phrases.
When I ask editors how they read to be sure that the message is clear and as intended, They often answer, “I look for what readers will get wrong.” It’s not a bad rule of thumb to follow — trying to outwit our own verbiage.
Even when readers can figure out what we mean, stopping to do so interrupts what we’re trying to say.
To be clear, look for places where you might be telling folks something that you didn’t intend or where you aren’t telling folks someething they need to know — go for clear communication. We can’t have readers jumping out kitchen windows. That just isn’t the way to build a brand or an audience of loyal readers.
(No Chihuahuas were hurt in the writing of this article. I made sure of that.)
–ME “Liz” Strauss
If you think Liz can help with a problem you’re having with your writing, check out the Work with Liz!! page in the sidebar.
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