In his introduction, Yagoda says the inspiration for his title came from a psychoanalytic concept first proposed in the 1950s: “the good-enough mother” (or parent) who doesn’t solve every problem but still manages to get the job done pretty well. “What I’m talking about here,” Yagoda writes, “is good-enough writing. As with parenting, it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but it’s definitely achievable. And it’s a decidedly worthwhile goal.”
How to get there? By reading a lot, of course—preferably writing that has been “selected and processed by an editor, and then ‘published.’” And once you sit down to write, Yagoda says, write mindfully. (Here I pause to consider that Ben Yagoda’s surname can be anagrammed into god, yoga, and Yoda.) A big part of mindful writing is maintaining “an awareness of and attention to the (hypothetical or real) person who will eventually be reading your words.”
Yagoda teaches advanced journalism and writing at the University of Delaware—he also writes the Not One-Off Britishisms blog and is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog—and most of the examples in the book come from his students. The majority of those students, he writes, “put me in mind of what Jack Nicholson famously shouted to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. The Cruise character couldn’t handle the truth, Nicholson said. Well, most students, I’ve found, can’t handle writing ‘well.’ At this point in their writing lives, that goal is simply too ambitious.”
One bad student example should suffice:
The criteria that made this site able to be nominated are because of the uniqueness of the content it possesses.
Yagoda’s suggested not-bad rewrite:
The site has excellent content.
Some specific bits of wisdom from How to Not Write Bad:
On preparing to write: “First, turn off the radio, the iPod, the television; put your phone on silence and in your pocket, X out of or minimize all screens other than the one you’re writing on. Multitasking = bad writing.”
On spelling: “Spell-check, in many ways a wonderful innovation, has caused spelling muscles—never especially robust to being with—to atrophy to the point that they now have the firmness of mint jelly.”
On punctuation: “You can dismiss apostrophes—and punctuation in general—as just a series of technical details. I prefer to look at them as measures of mindfulness.”
On the inadvisability of punctuating by ear: “”[S]tudents tend to insert commas at places where they would pause in speaking the sentence. This has about the same reliability as the rhythm method in birth control.”
On the passive voice: “The passive is a problem if and only if it leaves in its wake an insistent question that begins with the word Who?”
How to Not Write Bad is available in all the usual places, in print and e-formats, including, naturally, on Amazon, where Yagoda admits to obsessively tracking the book’s ranking. On publication day, February 5, he combined this “narcissistic endeavor” with some fitting philanthropy: For every ranking drop of 100, he donated a copy of How to Not Write Bad to Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches kids ages 7 to 17 “to think and write clearly.” I think the game is off now—at last check he’d donated 17 copies—but you may still want to support Mighty Writers, which looks like a mighty fine endeavor. And buy the book, of course.
Disclaimers: 1) I received a review copy of How to Not Write Bad from the publisher, Riverhead Books. 2) The David Friedman to whom Yagoda dedicates the book is not the David Friedman to whom I am related.
* Yagoda acknowledges that within 10 to 15 years many uses of singular they will be acceptable in formal writing. “However,” he writes, “they’re not acceptable now, so you have to make adjustments.”
Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun who (which would refer to a person) or that (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)? Essentially, does a zombie cease to become a “person” in the grammatical sense?
A. Let’s assume this is a serious question, in which case you, as the writer, get to decide just how much humanity (if any) and grammatical sense you wish to invest in said zombie. That will guide your choice of who or that.
Let’s say you’ve spent a lot of time and money developing a name that’s distinctive, legally available, and a good match for your naming brief. You can still end up with a less-than-desirable name if you neglect to ask these important questions.
1. How will it look in lower-case spelling? A name like IfByPhone or PopUpEdu depends for clarity on intercap letters. On Twitter and other applications, however, the name may appear in all lower-case letters—ifbyphone, popupedu—with a potential loss of intelligibility and pronounceability.
2. How will it look in black and white? Color can transform your company or product name into a sharp-looking logo. But for some applications—press kits, white papers, email—you won’t have the benefit of color. If you rely on color to make your point, as the Big Ten athletic conference did in its recent logo redesign, you risk losing your message. (I’m not saying that Big Ten is necessarily confusing anyone, but a smaller organization that attempts a similar strategy may be asking for trouble.)
3. How will it read in the newspaper? Speaking of black-and-white, print journalism isn’t dead yet. No matter how stridently you insist on accent marks or punctuation in your name (Aol. and Yahoo!, I’m talking to you), the business reporter on deadline is unlikely is share your obsession.
4. How does it sound on the telephone? Or in everyday conversation, for that matter? I've written previously about the counterintuitive pronunciation of Virgance. Here’s an even more-boggling example: μTorrent, a popular file-sharing client, is spelled with the Greek letter μ (mu), which is commonly pronouncedmee (in modern Greek), myoo (in English), or micro (in scientific measurements). But μTorrent’s URL is utorrent.com. The program’s Swedish creator, Ludvig Strigeus, “usually” pronounces the name as “you torrent” but has also suggested “microtorrent,” “mytorrent” (my, pronounced mee, is Swedish for μ), and “mutorrent” as possible pronunciations. For a consumer-facing company or product, this much word-of-mouth confusion would be catastrophic; it’s not exactly wonderful for μTorrent, either. (See also #3, above.)
5. Do you have a misleading or undesirable acronym? I’m currently talking with a prospective client, a startup, whose working name is a three-word idiom that ends in a word starting with “U.” Reduced to its initials, the company looks like a university. That’s misleading, but it could be much worse: the initials could be a real WTF.
6. Finally, do proceed carefully with those qrazy Q-names. I still don’t know whether QRANK is pronounced “cue-rank” or “crank.” And that makes me cranky.
This post is for all you name-it-yourselfers out there: you sole proprietors, partnerships, small businesses, and zero-budget nonprofits.
Let’s assume that, on your own or with the help of a pal or two, you’ve come up with a few business names that you think are pretty good. But you’re not absolutely certain—and you’re so exhausted by the creative effort you can’t tell which name to choose.
So you do what comes naturally. You start asking around.
“Take a look at these names,” you say to your sister-in-law as she’s dropping off the kids at your house. “Are any of them any good?”
“Which name do you like best?” you ask your golf buddies over beers at the clubhouse. “Don’t hold back!”
“I’m starting a business but I can’t reveal anything about it yet,” you tell your dog-walker. “Just let me know what you think of these five names.”
Finally, you ring my doorbell and ask my opinion. And I give it to you straight: Stop. Right. Now. Stop asking your friends whether they like your names.
Why? Because the answers you’ll hear will be irrelevant at best and depressing at worst.
Because when it comes to corporate and product names, the last thing you want is heavy breathing and galloping hormones.
What do you want?
An arranged marriage.
Oh, I can hear your disappointed sighs. But trust me: this is good news.
As with flesh-and-blood attraction, name-love is elusive and idiosyncratic. You, for example, may fall hard for a name that to your colleague suggests only that miserable summer she spent hitchhiking through Uzbekistan. She, on the other hand, may have such a long checklist for “the perfect name” that no candidate stands a chance of succeeding.
What both of you need is a marriage broker who will gently yet firmly guide you to a satisfying and promising union.
Here are some of the advantages of an arranged-marriage name:
It comes from a good family. The arranged-marriage name has a strong linguistic pedigree and appropriate meaning. It brings a network of friendly relations—a k a semantic associations—into the marriage.
It has excellent prospects. The arranged-marriage name is smart, capable, and likely to succeed. It will help your business grow and prosper.
It won’t embarrass you. That cute name with the flashy syllables is fun for a fling. But the morning after—and the morning after that—you’ll want a name you’re proud to pronounce on the phone, present on your business card, and repeat to your investors.
It comes highly recommended. You’re very skilled at many things, but face it: at naming, you’re an amateur. Why not let an expert (then: the village matchmaker; now: your naming consultant) steer you to a rosy future?
Here’s the best thing about the arranged-marriage name: One day, you’ll wake up and realize you’re in love. It may take a month; it may take a year. It may take seeing the name on your products, in your videos, on coffee mugs and T-shirts, in the Wall Street Journal. It may take your customers telling you repeatedly how much they love your name. Eventually, though, just like Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, you’ll find yourself smiling and saying: “If that’s not love, what is?”
Forget about love. With naming, an arranged marriage is your surest and sweetest route to happily ever after.
Disclaimer: My advice about arranged marriages applies to names only. With l’amour, you’re on your own.
Although it was originally published more than three years ago, "How to Name Your Company," on the Carsonified* blog, Think Vitamin, has been getting a lot of recent traffic and tweets. I discovered it through Kirstin Butler, whom I follow on Twitter. She called it a "great rundown of the basic considerations."
Oh, how I wish it were true.
My guess is that people are desperate for any advice about name development. Because that post, my friends? Is full of misleading, risky, and just plain wrong information.
Granted, author Michael McDerment is an entrepreneur, not a professional name developer. I'm sure he had good intentions. I only wish he'd done better research—or at least qualified his advice with "Your Mileage May Vary."
Sitzfleisch: The ability to endure or persist in an endeavor through sedentary determination. A borrowing from German, it literally means "sit-flesh"; a comparable English idiom might be "chair glue."
Sitzfleisch: a term used in chess to indicate winning by use of the glutei muscles--the habit of remaining stolid in one's seat hour by hour, making moves that are sound but uninspired, until one's opponent blunders through boredom. — Frank Vigor Morley, "My One Contribution to Chess", Chess Notes, Faber & Faber (1947). (Source: Wiktionary.)
I worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. ... He said, "Rhodes, you apply ass to chair." I call that solid-gold advice the Knickerbocker Rule1. — Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (1995).
Other sitz- words that have been adopted into English include sitz bath (a shallow bath taken in a sitting position, with only the hips and pelvic region immersed); sitzkrieg (warfare characterized by lack of aggression or progress; the opposite of blitzkrieg); and sitzmark (the impression made in snow by a skier falling backward, a k a butt-plant).
My guest post on Duets Blog ("The P-Word") about the overuse of "passion" in corporate slogans, and related discussions on the LinkedIn group VERB (for members only) and here, have sparked some lively commentary. Yes, commenters say, "passion" is passé, but what can we do about it? One commenter mused about "less dicey alternatives" to the problematic P-word: "love"? "calling"? "bliss"? How about "zeal," suggested another reader. A third reader supplied his own company's snappy solution: "We're horn-dogs for your marketing budget!"
But is it a solution? I don't think so, and neither are all the other synonyms. Because the problem with "passion" isn't just the P-word, meaningless as it's become. It's us.
Who's passionate? We are! Who has the passion? We do! Yay, us!
Oh, and you customers out there? Nice of you to show up. Feel free to bask in the warm glow of our deep, abiding passion. Now excuse use while we return to our weekend values-affirmation retreat.
Let me put it another way. When a company says "We're Passionate" or "Our Passion Is," my reaction is invariably: How lucky for you! Now ... what's in it for me?
Try a little exercise. Imagine that Nike's slogan were "A Passion for Sports." Would it make you care? Would you be inspired? Would you feel as challenged or engaged as you are by "Just Do It"?
Suppose Coca-Cola's slogan were "We're Passionate About Soda." Do those words make you want to run out and buy a case? Compare "We're Passionate About Soda" to one of Coke's longest-running slogans, "The Pause That Refreshes." Which one speaks directly to your tastebuds, your thirst?¹
The great advertising slogans, the ones we remember for decades, rarely talk about us.2 Instead, they channel the customer's desires and express a benefit.
Defining those desires and zeroing in on the benefit takes hard work. It's a lot easier to talk about us and how experienced, sensitive, and passionate we are. But that won't get your customers' attention. Especially when, as my little quiz demonstrates, dozens of other companies are using exactly the same language.
I don't want to suggest that every company that employs a P-word slogan is lazy or uncreative. Indeed, there's usually a strong, sincere motivation behind the trite formula. Jack Cuffari nails it in his comment on Duets Blog:
It is becoming evident that all the logic systems and left brain
business school dogma that has dominated business thinking for the past
100 years is simply not a sufficient foundation for business success.
That's because we have become a society if great abundance, a society
in which the deepest, most powerful driver is a search for meaning.
It's why emotional branding is the only branding that truly resonates
and connects with consumers. And it's pointing out the need for balance
- bringing in the aspects of right brain orientation (meaning, empathy,
harmony, recreation, - but primarily meaning) to complement and
complete the model.
After all, what is passion but the single most glaring absence in the dry desert of economic theory?
The challenge is to find a fresh, distinctive, interesting way to express the emotion—one that invites your customers in rather than shouts at them, passionately, across a chasm.
¹ I just read that Coke will introduce a new slogan, "Twist the Cap to Refreshness," in 2010. I haven't been able to confirm it, and I hope it's not too late to change it. "Refreshness" is one of the lamest coinages ever in the Brandish lexicon.
2There are exceptions: Avis's classic "We Try Harder" and General Electric's "We Bring Good Things to Life" come to mind. But even though they talk about "us," those slogans actually focus on the customer. We try harder ... for you. We bring good things to life ... so you can enjoy them. And each of those slogans includes a strong verb, something that's missing from the P-word slogans.
You say you have a company or a product that needs a name? Great. Let's talk.
But not about names—not yet, anyway. Instead, let's talk about what comes before the names: your naming brief.
Never heard of a naming brief? You're not alone. Name development seems fuzzy and magical to many business owners, and especially to new entrepreneurs who've never named a company or product. They may not put it quite this way, but they want to believe that namers are wizards and good names develop themselves, without prior research or strategy.
Well, that's just wrong. To create good names, you first have to create a good naming brief.