Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: December, 2013

The Right Word

• “It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.” Isabel Allende

• “Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.” Susan Orlean

• “Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.” Francine Prose

From things I read on Brain Pickings.


Retelling in a Computer Science Talk

This interesting insight about the organization of content in a science talk comes from Adam Waksman, a PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University:

“One challenge that is always present in computer science talks is the need to constantly remind the audience what is happening. Computer scientists expect to be told what they are going to hear before they hear it.

While I do not necessarily think that results need to be a mystery, I also think the constant re-telling gets tedious. For example, the audience might be told something on an initial overview slide, then again during motivation, then reminded of it on an outline slide and then told it in detail later in the talk. For me, that is too much.

One example of where that is an issue for me in my Berlin talk [presented at CCS 2013 – http://www.sigsac.org/ccs/CCS2013 in November] is the issue of multiple scores. At some point in the talk, the audience needs to understand that there are two different scores being computed and why they are both relevant. Saying it too early gets redundant and derails the story. Saying it too late makes it seem like it came out of the blue and also somewhat derails the story. I have moved the relevant slide a couple of times in recent revisions, but I am not sure I am happy at the moment with the placement.

In my experience, these are often tricky cases — where there is a detail to the story that is important because of scientific reasons but not inherently obvious. One cannot withhold these details in a long talk, but when introduced at the wrong time they make the story seem less simple and perfect, which is often what a computer science audience wants to hear. This is something I expect to improve upon as I do more practice talks.”

Thank you Adam!


E.B. White’s Approach to Style

“. . . We approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries . . .”

“. . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

E. B. White in The Elements of Style.


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