I hate to contradict Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the beginning is not a very good place to start. Whether you’re writing a biography or describing a bird, the best place to start is with the most interesting features.
Before naturalist Roger Tory Peterson came along, a typical description of a robin started at the tip of the beak and ended at the tip of the tail. It wasn’t until you were halfway through the description that you learned a robin has a red breast. Peterson changed that. As the inventor of the modern field guide, he used descriptions that focused on distinguishing characteristics, so birders could accurately identify different species.
Likewise in a biography, start out with what makes the individual unique. Here’s an example of a rather uninspiring biographical note from a portrait at the San Diego Air and Space Museum:
Wernher Von Braun
Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912. As chief scientist at the Peenemunde
Rocket Center in Germany, developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2.
Before I even get to the interesting part (that he invented the first long-range ballistic missile), I’ve already stopped caring. Impatient readers might stop reading. I’d rewrite this note as follows:
Wernher Von Braun
Developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2, while chief scientist at the
Peenemunde Rocket Center in Germany. Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912.
In the very first sentence, give readers something to care about. Capture their imagination. Propel them into the second sentence, then into the third. Today’s readers filter the mass of material that confronts them. You have a few seconds to convince readers that your story, article, or paper is worth their time. Don’t waste a sentence. Don’t waste a word. Compel them to read.
While traveling recently through RDU Airport’s new Terminal 2 (that’s the one with the “C” gates—go figure), I noticed that the usual terms “Baggage Claim” and “Ground Transportation” were supplanted by “Bag Claim” and “Ground Transport.” I can only imagine the tens of dollars the airport must have saved by eliminating nine letters from each of those signs; but is this good usage?
The style guides I consulted—Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The AP Stylebook—had nothing to say regarding the use of bag vs. baggage or transport vs. transportation. So I turned to the most modest of all reference books, the dictionary, for guidance. Both bag and baggage are defined as “luggage,” and both transport and transportation are defined as “a system for conveying people or goods.” It appears that in this sense, the word pairs can function as synonyms.
But another question remains: is there a reason to prefer baggage when it’s used as a modifier? Neither bag nor baggage is defined as an adjective, so grammatically, there’s no reason to use baggage claim rather than bag claim. That’s just what we’re accustomed to. The English language is constantly evolving, and Americans in particular prefer simplicity. So bag claim and ground transport it is, at least here in Raleigh-Durham. We’ll see if other airports go along.
A few years ago, my husband decided to install a gate across our tree-lined driveway to discourage teenagers from using our yard as a turnaround. I imagined the gate would be the height of a picket fence, to keep out cars but not deter pedestrians. Hubby had different ideas. The gate is massive. It inspired our neighbors to come pay it homage. I admit, the iron posts and brick columns are beautiful. The lions’ heads on either side give it character. But the message it sends is Do Not Enter Here.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the gate has no call button. If someone has a legitimate reason for coming to our home, we either have to give them the code, or we have to open the gate for them in advance. The gate is also quite finicky. If you type the wrong code, it won’t open—even if you try again and enter the right code.
So people who can’t open the gate will sit in their cars, using their Blackberries to search the internet for our (unlisted) phone number. Or they’ll call anyone they know who might have our number, trying to figure out how to get us to come outside and open the gate. They’ll do this for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Sometimes, they’ll give up and drive away.
But here’s the thing: you can walk around the gate. That’s right: you can get out of your car, take the two foot detour through the pine straw, tromp the thirty yards to our front door, and ring the bell. It does not occur to some people to do this.
I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t explain this tunnel vision. But as a professional communicator, I’m tasked with anticipating how people may become so stymied by the unexpected that they overlook the obvious. People under stress don’t always make good decisions, so my job is to point them toward the path I want them to travel.
Next on my husband’s to-do list: put up a sign telling people what to do if the gate doesn’t open. I’ll do the writing.
Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability
Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability