Thursday, February 25, 2010

Simplicity is hard. Let's go shopping!

Simpler, generally speaking, is better. A clever little riff on the subject can be found here.

H/T to my tech-entrepreneur-iPhone-app-developer-and-deep-thinker bud Chris DeVore.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

4 business tips for freelancers...from Molly Maid

I know you're thinking, "Molly Maid? Really?" But hang with me here. A few weeks ago on a lazy Sunday, I contacted two cleaning services through their respective online forms. Here's how it went down:
  1. The owner of the local Molly Maid franchise called me at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, while his competitor didn't call till later that afternoon. I know that there's a desire among freelancers to be perceived as busy and exclusive, but don't forget that there's considerable impact from being prompt and responsive, too.
  2. The Molly Maid guy was brief on the phone. The other company's rep did way too much rambling and bragging about why his company is superior before he ever asked me about my needs. In the excitement of having a prospect, beware the temptation to gush information. (You'll have plenty of time to prove how wonderful you are once you start a project.) Ask questions instead.
  3. The bid was presented as a range that would be finalized after the first cleaning. I'm a huge believer in "estimated ranges" for freelancers because they A) give the client an incentive to be easy to work with and B) give you an opportunity to reward that behavior. I was pleasantly surprised when our first cleaning came in at the low end of the range, whereas if he had just given a hard number and hit it, it wouldn't have thought anything of it.
  4. A significant portion of Molly Maid's business comes from people weary of independent agents who were inexpensive, but inconsistent about how well they cleaned, or who would switch days and times, or simply not show up at all. So too, in many, many cases, a prospect for your creative services has been burned by a previous bad experience with Freelancerius flakius. Your job, particularly while mopping up someone else's mess, is to reassure them with professional reliability.
I've resisted the temptation in the headline and body text so far, but I can't any longer: Freelancing may be a Dirty Job, but these four tips can help you clean up.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What's in a word: "Backronym"

Backronym is one of those neat words that means exactly what it says: Taking an existing word and retrofitting words to make an acronym from it. (It also happens to be an example of one of my other favorite word/concepts, a portmanteau: two words blended to make a new one with a meaning that combines the two. Lewis Carroll gets the credit for using that word first in Alice in Wonderland.)

Two famous examples of backronyms that come to mind from childhood are Fiat standing for "Fix it again, Tony" or Ford meaning "Found on roadside, dead." The backronym for posh--"port outbound, starboard home"--is falsely believed to derive from the location of wealthy passengers' berths on trips between England and India. More likely, it was derived from slang for money.

Backronym is such a terrific word that I was surprised to see that it's a relatively young one. Wikipedia attributes it (spelled "bacronym") to a Washington Post language contest in 1983.

And if you really, really have too much time on your hands, take a spin on the random Backronym Generator.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The S-word, the R-word, and the F-word

When my daughter was about 4, she tattle-taled that her 5-year-old brother had said "the S-word." This didn't seem right to me; even though my wife and enjoy cussing, I was pretty confident that we'd shielded their young ears from four-letter words to that point. (That's no longer the case.)

After a bit of cross examination, I managed to get her to reveal that Nick had actually said "stupid"--yes, a banned word in our household, though mercifully not the one I'd feared.

Which brings me to the recent kerfuffle about "the R-word" as a placeholder for the word retard or retarded. I will say that Rahm Emmanuel's use of it, paired with the F-word gerund, is appalling language for a person in the public eye. It was appropriate for him to apologize. On the other hand, I'm not on board with the pledges to forcibly remove retard or retarded from the everyday lexicon, and scrubbing it from U.S. law seems quixotic at best, Orwellian at worst. It is a completely inappropriate pejorative, but where do you stop? Languages are full of nasty, hateful words.

I'm confident that turning "the R-word" into a euphemism for an ugly phrase doesn't solve the root problem, which is crudeness and thoughtlessness. Anyone with a brain knows EXACTLY what the placeholder means. That's why I loathe the phrase "the N-word." Hiding behind that "N" is a concept at its ugliest.

On a lighter note, I wonder who's in charge of deciding which word gets first rights to the use of each of the letters in the alphabet. (The OED?) On occasion, I'll jokingly call freelancing "the other F-word," because so many people have had a bad experience on one side of the fence or the other. But right now, you can just call me "the B-word": bored with the whole stupid issue.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Derek Zoolander Center for People Who Can't Spel Gud

During a recent visit to a hospital to cover a story, I spotted a suggestion box labeled "CHAPLIN REQUESTS." (Yes, I resisted the temptation to ask if they had any mustachioed silent-film stars handy for my amusement while I waited.)

In fact, I didn't say anything. The instant calculation in my head was that 1) it was not misleading as far as its intended purpose, 2) most people won't even realize it's misspelled, and 3) it's kind of funny.

If your brain is wired for language, you can't help but notice spelling and grammar abuse at every turn. Makes you feel superior, eh? The question, then, is whether to say anything when you do--hence the "instant calculation" I performed in my head. For me, the inputs include:
  • the seriousness of the error (lethal, misleading or just silly?)
  • the location it appears in (high traffic or inconsequential?)
  • the cost that it would take to fix it (signage, printed material or website?)
  • my relationship with the responsible party (client, vendor or someone who would likely think I was a know-it-all smartaleck?)
My longtime proofreader Bonnie Trenga has a section at her Sentence Sleuth blog for people to add their own "criminal sentences." She secured my business back in the mid-'90s by marking up a magazine that I edited and asking if we could use her services. A risky tactic, but it worked.