Friday is the official publication date of Microstyle in the UK. Welcome to you readers who may have found your way here as a result. Perhaps you saw my article in the Independent. Perhaps you read this article in the Guardian, and were undeterred by Robert McCrum’s characterization of me as an “engaging hustler”. Don’t worry, I’m not here to sell you anything. Except a book. And my extremely valuable consulting services.
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We need a new kind of popular discourse about language. We need to talk more about what makes everyday language delicious. I’m not talking about literature. That’s the world of Michelin three-star restaurants and the finicky critics who dine in them. I’m talking about popular verbal culture, which is all around us: jokes, song lyrics, funny headlines, slogans, taglines, brand names, sound bites. Our linguistic pot-luck buffet.
Verbal culture is different from most other kinds of culture because everyone contributes. Everyone talks (or signs) and everyone writes: tweets, blog posts, email, Craigslist ads, Amazon product reviews, messages on greeting cards, little signs stuck into cheese–something. Language is democratic that way. You don’t have to take lessons and you don’t need any special equipment. Verbal culture is woven into everything we do. It’s work and play, sometimes at the same time.
In practice, our verbal culture is lively and hardworking, playful and pragmatic. But when we start to talk about language, we tend to get a little uptight. The main problem is that we’re obsessed with the idea of correctness. Those of us who think we know how to use language correctly get bossy, and the rest of us worry that the Language Bosses will find out we’re stupid and make fun of us.
We have reasons to be concerned about correctness in certain contexts. But we focus on it while ignoring almost everything interesting about language.
At their most helpful, the Language Bosses are linguistic poison sniffers, like Remy the rat in the Pixar film Ratatouille. (In case you haven’t seen the film: Remy has a gift for cooking, longs to be a chef, and lands the opportunity to work, surreptitiously, in a Parisian restaurant. At one point, however, he abandons his dream and puts his sensitive nose to work sniffing out poison in his rat colony’s food. It’s useful work, but uninspiring.) The Language Bosses help us avoid deadly mistakes when we’re writing important documents that will be scrutinized and judged, like college application essays and job cover letters, but they pay little attention to the flavors and textures of language.
When we “loosen up” and look on the fun side of language, we tend to focus on arcane things like obscure words (“Did you know that thing on the end of your shoelace is called an aglet?”) and surprising etymologies (“Did you know that the words glamour and grammar come from the same source?”). There’s nothing wrong with these fun facts, but they’re valued precisely because they’re exotic and don’t have much to do with our living verbal culture. It’s as if we can’t see the poetry in our own everyday language use.
Let’s start looking.
Though the official publication date isn’t until Monday, Microstyle is already out there, fending for itself in the big bad world. The photo above shows it on the shelves in the Writing section at Elliott Bay Book Co., right underneath some copies of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Hmm, that’s kind of a microstyle-friendly topic…maybe I should review the book, as my agent Lisa suggests!
The Kindle version of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little is now available for purchase and instant delivery. Who should read it?
Business people: Microstyle will help you name your company or product, create a tagline or slogan, write better web and ad copy, and use Twitter and other social media platforms to grab people’s attention.
Language lovers: Microstyle describes what’s happening with our language right now. Robert Swartwood, writer and editor of Hint Fiction, calls it “a must-read for anyone who cares anything for the English language“.
Science and tech geeks: Microstyle is a work of popular linguistics. Author Christopher Johnson isn’t your typical branding consultant. He got a PhD in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, was a professor at the University of Chicago, and has worked as a natural language processing software developer at AT&T Labs and elsewhere.
Design fans: (You probably want to order the hardcover, because the book design is so cool.) Microstyle is about verbal design. Short, attention-getting, memorable messages have much in common with graphic design, and work together with it in logos, ads, posters, comics, and other works. The author grew up with graphic design, because his dad’s a retired commercial artist who designed, among other things, cereal boxes for General Mills.
The July 1, 2011 issue of Booklist has a great review of Microstyle by Donna Seaman. She describes it as “cogent, interesting, and genuinely useful,” and writes, “With advice for writing compelling blogs, pitches, ads, slogans, and social-media postings, Johnson’s sophisticated, richly referenced, and example-filled microstyle guide is distinctive, instructive, enjoyable, and inspiring.”
Would you like to have a free sneak preview of Microstyle? I have some author copies to give to my favorite people, and some of my favorite people are people I haven’t even met yet–would-be readers who want to help spread the word. So here’s what I’m going to do: whoever writes the best tweet mentioning @Microstyle in the next week will get a copy. What do I mean by “best tweet”? That’s purely subjective. I alone will the be the judge, jury, and distributioner. (Yes, I know that’s not a real word.) This tweet might be especially clever, or it might get lots of new people to follow @Microstyle. Or both. On Thursday, June 30th at 3:30pm PDT I’ll pick and contact the winner, then send out a book. If everything goes well, maybe I’ll do it again the following week. Sorry, due to shipping costs and legal hassles, this contest is only open to grownups in the U.S. And you have to be following @Microstyle to win.
So everyone warm up your brains, crack your knuckles, and get ready to tap out some mad tweets!
The bound galleys for Microstyle came today! It’s exciting to see the manuscript in book form for the first time, but also humbling–the book stops being a grandiose idea and becomes a tangible, finite little bundle of paper like so many others. But still, there it is. Cool!
Advice about language lags behind the verbal demands of everyday life. It tends to be conservative and to focus on form rather than content. Maybe you want to know how to get attention with a blog post title, or how to write the perfect tweet. Reach for a style guide, and it’s more likely to explain the proper use of the semicolon or the differences among hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.
Social media have changed the way we write, and it’s time for style guides to catch up. There are reference books geared toward the web, such as The Yahoo! Style Guide, but they tend to be about tailoring longer written content for websites.
One book that tackles the kind of writing that social media demand is 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form, by Twitter founding employee and original power user Dom Sagolla. Dom understands that Twitter requires a new kind of writing that poses its own challenges, and his book is a big step in the right direction. But I think there’s room for a linguist’s take on the new verbal landscape, and that’s why I wrote Microstyle.
Twitter isn’t the only place we need to be brief with language. It’s part of a much larger and more fundamental phenomenon: now it’s easy for everyone to share messages with the world! That means lots of messages are competing with each other for attention, and that means the price (in attention) that people are willing to pay for a message is going down, down, down. So it’s important to be brief. We’re all, in a sense, facing the same challenge that ad copywriters and newspaper headline writers have faced for decades. We all need to know how to make miniature messages grab attention, communicate instantly, stick in the mind, and roll off the tongue. It’s time for microstyle.
Microstyle, alas, will have to wait until July 2011.