Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little

microstyleAuthor Christopher Johnson, Ph.D. (linguistics) is a verbal branding consultant and blogger. http://www.thenameinspector.com. His book, Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little is about micromessages; namely, messages encapsulated in a word, phrase, short sentence or, in the case of a tweet, 140 characters.

Whether or not you’re a writer, you’ll get a lot from this book. I actually bought a copy (no small praise) because I knew I’d be doing some serious yellow highlighting. Much to absorb, ponder and experiment with. Too, Microstyle comforted me. I no longer feel like a dinosaur because I write long prose. There is and will always be a place for me. Whew!

 

What is Microstyle?

According to Johnson, microstyle “is about grabbing that attention for a moment and communicating something quickly.” Quickly is the operative word here. Human attention today is a scarce resource, and we must use words economically to ensure our messages get noticed, remembered and passed along.

Until recently, most of us wrote only when we had to: e.g., for a term paper, cover letter, report. Now we write whenever we want via emails, Facebook posts, tweets, hashtags. None requires correct grammar, punctuation or spelling. And no longer are we judged solely by authority figures; what our peers think is often more important.

Understanding and mastering this kind of writing is, of course, what Microstyle is about. He uses real-life ad slogans and campaigns, and company branding decisions to illustrate micro principles at work. But he always provides the context for why each works or doesn’t. Most of this is pretty interesting. Some stuff was too heavy on the linguistics (“One specific type of metonymy is synecdoche …”). Johnson also gets too wordy at time. (My sense is you could cut a quarter of the book and still get all you need.)

About the Book

The book has four sections: Meaning, Sound, Structure and Social Context. Here are five of the hundreds of passages I highlighted. (Note: I chose these arbitrarily.)

• “So how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t. That’s the first lesson of microstyle. A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination. A successful message sends people in the right direction but allows them to use their wits and the cues provided by context to get there. Keeping this in mind makes you think about how your message fits into a larger picture and points to ideas without expressing them directly. The interaction of message, mind, and context makes meaning happen.” (Chapter 1: “Be Clear,” page 34)

• “When you encounter a name for a new company or product, even if the name seems ‘arbitrary,’ your mind subconsciously finds the network of ideas that connects the name to the company or product. That network is one of the most important aspects of a brand.

“One of the least successful ways to name a company, product or service is to choose the word of phrase that most clearly describes it. … For most good names, the network of meaning is indirect. There are both legal and strategic reasons for this. Legally, a name can’t be trademarked if it’s too descriptive of the product or service it represents. You can’t trademark a name like ‘Delicious Foods’ or ‘Big Strong Trash Bags.’ But even if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to, because names like that add little to a brand. They’re too one-dimensional.” (Chapter 2, “Choose the Right Word,” page 61)

• “… sensory appeals are a common feature of microstyle. Visual images, in particular, are well suited to short messages. In fact, microstyle has a multifaceted kinship with graphic design. First, it’s the verbal equivalent. If a novel is like a painting, and a scientific paper like a technical illustration, then a micromessage is like a bold graphic. It uses simple elements to maximum effect, can be noticed in a cluttered environment, and communicates in an instance.” (Chapter 3, “Paint a Picture,” page 69)

• “Unless you’re composing a tongue twister or a joke … it’s best to keep the sounds of your messages simple and appealing. That’s largely a matter of avoiding ugly knots of consonants. Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west.” (Chapter 10, “Keep It Simple,” pages 124-125)

• “Neologisms [new words] can be among the most powerful of micromessages. …

“Almost all new words, from tech company names to political insults, result from a handful of processes familiar to linguists. Most of these processes are green: they reuse or recycle existing words. Here are seven common ways to build a new word:

  1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
  4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
  5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecoast, podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)

(Chapter 15, “Coin a New Word,” page 161)

(BTW — I coined the word “Lifenicity” for my Lifenicity.com blog of personal writings. Its definition:  The richness of everyday life. Its ups, downs and in-betweens; its magic and whammies. Its embrace.)

To conclude and in a microstyle I hope Johnson would approve of:

Good book. Buy as a reference. Highlight and incorporate stuff. The end.

 

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