Saturday, April 28, 2012

Is This a Great Language, or What?

You got words that combine to contradict each other. You got words that sound the same but would be awkward as hell if they ran into each other in the same sentence. 

What started me thinking about it was the question some wiseacre posed after seeing my blog: If a one-talent specialist knows many things within his specialty, does that make him a renaissance hedgehog?

Oxymoron! I didn’t say it out loud, of course, but that’s what we had: a couple of words joined together but forever at odds with each other, like in some marriages.  

The other thing -- homonyms –  I associate with my mother. In her later years, after my father died, she kept a notebook of English-language homonyms. I think it may have been her own immigrant background – Ellis Island, ’04 – that motivated her to compile something to help newcomers to the language. [That was 1904.]  

She had a highschool education and she did a lot with it. (Taught me to read, for one thing.) The collection started small – to, too, and two; hall vs haul – that sort of thing. By the time she died, just short of 102, she had branched out into words that confused in print (like carousel and carousal), and “New York homonyms” -- words that shouldn’t have sounded alike but did, where we lived (I give you farther and father, sorted and sordid, sauce and source). That made me wonder, had we lived one borough over, what she might have done with the distinctive Brooklyn accent. Sometimes she would just note oddities:  how “impugn” had nothing to do with “impunity.” Sometimes the words would be obscure (by my lights, anyway: try “pome” ) or archaic (when last did you hear anyone “keen”?). 

That started me thinking about language as I’ve encountered it, and what English must be for people who have to learn it.   

I struggled with a foreign language requirement in college. I’d studied Latin in highschool and would have enjoyed going on with it. I thought of a way to do it, too, but I couldn’t shake a mental picture of the Admissions Department at Gonzaga puzzling over my name on the application. It wasn’t taught at the school I attended, and I had to switch to a modern language. I chose Spanish, and almost failed it -- in part, I’m sure, because of resentment at having to start over. It doesn’t seem now like that hard a language to work with.  

A few years later I found myself immersed in Japanese, and started to study that. It was going well, but the government agency I was working with required my services at an artillery piece, and I had to drop out.  But in my short acquaintance with it, the language seemed learnable.  

But then there’s English.  The quirks! Help, helped; walk, walked; take, took?  Bring, brought?  C’mon.  


How does anyone learn this language?

Next: Some free association

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Adulterated Writing

My eighth post, and I’m still conflicted about a choice I had to make when I set the blog up. 

Going through Blogger’s opening steps, under “Settings” I came to this: “Adult Content, Yes or No?”  

Wow; a tough question already, and I’d barely started. 

I like to think my ”content” is written at adult level for people who can read accordingly.  I can reach back far enough in my memory to a time when I could have answered “Yes”  -- if anyone had thought to ask. Of course I had to check the “No” box this time, though, or be banned from polite blog society. (I assume that’s why they ask.)   

So where does that leave me? My writing is childish? [Oddly, that would have won me a job: the buyers wanted material for their financial advisory newsletter, but written at 4th to 6th grade level. Versatile though I am, I missed on that one.]   

The irony of it all is that my writing really is adult, while “adult” material is juvenile, or sophomoric if you’re generous. It was fairer when my stuff was adult and theirs was pornography, back in that earlier day when folks called a spade a spade and a vibrator a dildo.  
The really painful comparison, though, and I don’t often like to remind myself about it, is the relative success and pay scales involved.  Pornography is maybe the biggest business there is, worldwide audience, and here’s me: Len Diamond Writes. Eighty-seven  ”views” of my page the first month, eighty-four of them my own as I struggled with setting it up.  

What about equal pay for equal work? A joke! Porn stars make big money. Writers prostitute themselves all the time – think SEO articles -- but for four or five bucks a trick.  

But -- porn is off the table; so what’s the second biggest money-maker “content” you can write?   

If you think of gross, you immediately have to think about those SEO articles. Not quite as big as and a little less obscene than porn, for sheer volume of demand search engine optimization is a big industry. I mean, buyers order SEO ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred yards at a time. (Just thinking about all those words that could have been used better… ) But at the retail level where the writer works, earning money with SEO is all about that kind of volume. Word for word, SEO doesn’t pay well – in fact, word for word, SEO pays about a penny.  So if you hope to make money at SEO, you have to be able to stuff a lot of SEO into your SEO article. And do it unobtrusively. SEO. 

I’ll try to be fair; you can argue that this stuff is a training ground for new writers. You have to break in somewhere. But it’s not for me. I won’t do it.  Not at those rates, anyway. I’m gonna hang out on this corner and wait for a better offer.

Next: Oxymorons and homonyms

Friday, April 13, 2012

Them Cheapo Jobs

It's what got me started on this blog, and I have a feeling it won't be the last instance; I've come across (yet another) online job that embodies everything that’s wrong with too many online jobs. 

The listing runs almost 500 words to detail a scriptwriting job that requires expertise in an unusually arcane subject. To qualify, you must be able to show similar work. Must be a good paying job!   

It has all the usual formula stuff: the LONG TERM promise of more work; the plagiarism warning, but with the embellishment that you’ll be reported to “the proper authorities” if apprehended; the WORK FOR HIRE clause also in ALL CAPS, and in case you miss it it’s explicated for you: your name won’t appear anywhere in, on, or near the work and the buyer will own all rights including the right to make money from it.  

So far, though, apart from the overbearing tone, there’s nothing to find fault with. For myself, I’ve had bylines, but just about  everything I’ve ever written for money has been for hire. I don’t plagiarize, so while the warning is insulting, it’s no real problem.  

The kicker comes toward the end (it usually does, doesn’t it?).  think it’s an attempt to induce a sort of long-range hypnotic state: the buyer tells you it’s a VERY EASY job for a great writer like you, and you should bid fairly.  "Fairly” is pegged at no more than $30 per script.  

So what have we got?  
(1) The job may be easy if you’re versed in the very specialized medically-related subject matter; anyone else (whom the buyer tells you he wouldn’t accept anyway) could have one helluva learning curve to climb. But   
(2) If you’re the well qualified writer in (1)  – why should you do it for 30 bucks? Plus which,  
(3) “No more than“  means less than; they’re looking for someone desperate enough to bid lower.  
(4)  Long-Term Relationship: The pay is lousy but there’s more where that came from. I guess like in the old joke, you make it up in volume.  

I’ve seen the “VERY EASY/bid fairly” mantra several times now on a couple of job exchanges. ”This is a VERY EASY 30-page report.” Keep looking into my eyes. “… twenty VERY EASY 500-word articles.” Please don’t ask to be compensated for your work. Even though we’re going to sell it for a profit.  It’s the cousin of the guy who says he could do this assignment in twenty minutes, and would do it himself if only something important didn’t have him tied up.   

This particular job above, they might have trouble filling it even at a fair price. But the other lowball jobs that don’t have that kind of specialized requirement must be finding writers, because the jobs keep coming. I take a little comfort, though, in that things go in cycles. Other types of jobs are starting to come home from Hong Kong and Bangladesh.  Maybe writing, returned from “content” to respectability, could begin to pay again one day. 

Next: Some adult material

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Icon Is Worth 500 Words

We used to communicate more with words, but a lot of it is done with cartoons today. People are pleased to call them “icons,” but that’s a helluva stretch; icons were originally sacred art, and they had a religious message.  

We get our messages from a different kind of art today; signs with pictures on them. We’re surrounded by signs trying to show us things we should do or not do. I guess you could call them pictographs; the dictionary does relate that to primitive writing. But I submit they’re all cartoons: “a drawing symbolizing an action, situation, or person of topical interest” according to the dictionary. What’s a cigarette in a circle with a red slash though it? It’s a drawing symbolizing an action you’d better take or you’ll find yourself in a situation. As for computer “icons,” the smiley face -- I rest my case.  

I’m a word man, so to me all this is a step backward, but at the same time I recognize the reasons for it. People come here from other places, and English can be a difficult language to master if you didn’t grow up with it. Even if you did, for some of us. I live in Southern California, where everyone drives, so it’s important that everyone be on the same page when, for example, you’re fighting your way home from work on Aviation Boulevard.  If the guy ahead of you is going to have to stop in traffic to think about what “No Left Turn” means, much better to have a sign showing a bent arrow with a line through it.    

I feel real nostalgia for the days when signs said things. Traffic signs were always models of two of the best attributes of good writing: clarity and brevity. “No Stopping.” Wow! Try to top that for effective communication. Especially backed up with a $50 fine. (By the way, what’s the icon for No Stopping?)   

Our freeways are among the few places you’ll still find word signs. That’s surprising at first blush, because you’re not going to get a lot of time to parse the message while going 70 miles an hour. Thinking about the alternative, though, you realize it’s necessity at work: how would you iconize “Long Beach Freeway 2 miles”?  (That illustrates a point I was making above: I’ve seen people slow down almost to a stop to read that one.)   

If your audience is such that you need to communicate through pictures, there are many skilled graphics people waiting to help you. I can recommend some excellent ones. However, if you use brochures or ads or manuals or articles or white papers and similar written things to advance your cause, there are at least as many writers out there, of whom I’m one.     

And if you’re thinking of trying that “picture is worth a thousand words” line on me – my answer is, Draw me the Gettysburg Address.

Next: Let’s deconstruct a job offer