9 episodes

Word Shots is for people who want their English to be as effective as possible. Whether it's writing, editing, or public speaking, we can all benefit by learning from others. Word Shots exists to share what Max Christian Hansen has learned about effective English from many great teachers. Graduate from grammar and move up to maximum-strength writing!

Word Shots, the Podcast Max Christian Hansen

    • Language Learning

Word Shots is for people who want their English to be as effective as possible. Whether it's writing, editing, or public speaking, we can all benefit by learning from others. Word Shots exists to share what Max Christian Hansen has learned about effective English from many great teachers. Graduate from grammar and move up to maximum-strength writing!

    Episode 9: Shun the tion Words

    Episode 9: Shun the tion Words

    Those zombie, empty nouns that don't stand for any real thing—how do they creep into our writing?

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    Full Transcript
    Last week I talked about how much our writing is strengthened when we replace abstract subjects with concrete ones capable of actually performing actions, and then use those actions as our primary verbs.

    Next week, we’ll look at some strategies for doing that. But first, let’s talk about what those abstract nouns are called, and how they arise. This will help us understand which ones are the worst offenders. Then we’ll know how to tell which ones to leave alone.
    Page 1: The Dreadful Word Nominalization Stands for a Dreadful Thing.
    Those abstract nouns that find their way into subject and object positions have a technical name among linguists: they’re called nominalizations. That is, they’re some word that’s normally not a noun, but been turned into one.

    There are three parts of speech that get nominalized: adverbs, adjectives, verbs.

    The nominalizations that wreak the worst havoc on writing are the verbs, so we’ll save them for last, and deal with the easy ones first.

    Rarest and also least troublesome are adverbs. You’ve heard me use a nominalized adverb at least once if you’ve listened to all the episodes of Word Shots. In episode 6, I said that writers often get in trouble because they’ve “never clarified the why at all.” In that sentence, I’ve nominalized the adverb why. Most uses of a nominalized adverb are like this one; the writer is asking you to take a close look at that adverb either as a word or as a concept, and so it gets treated as a noun. If the writer’s dealing with it as a concept, there may be no way to make it less abstract than it is. But notice that I used it as object, not as subject. The subject is the writer, the one who must deal with the concept, who must look closely at the reasons behind his or her opus, “the why”. So the sentence still has the elements of story: an agent, the writer; and an action, in this case an action not taken, that of defining why he or she is writing.

    If, in your reading, you give up on an author when you find such a usage, it’s probably because you disagree with their entire premise; you don’t believe that the adverb-as-subject is worth studying. Your reason for quitting is less likely to be that this way of using the adverb is unclear or distasteful to you.

    Adjectives are nominalized more often than adverbs. They can be a little more troublesome, but not too much so. A nominalized adjective names a state or condition, and we’re actually quite used to thinking about those. For example, we often think about conditions such as happiness or sadness. These are nominalized forms of the adjectives happy and sad. The reason they’re not distressingly abstract is that we usually don’t think of them as separate from some actual being. Instead, we normally picture a happy or sad person, or perhaps an animal. And usually, the writer who uses one of these abstractions gives us some context that helps us choose the right thing to visualize.

    Last week I used the sample sentence “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.” That’s an extreme case of the writer supplying plenty of context. Although the nominalized adjective sadness was in the subject position, the rest of the sentence invited the reader not only to picture it as belonging to a person, but to a very specific person. On the website, I included a picture of Woolf, who even when young and well-featured,

    • 10 min
    Word Shots 8: Strong Writing Grows From a Kernel of Story

    Word Shots 8: Strong Writing Grows From a Kernel of Story

    Even if you're producing expository prose, the key to strong writing is story. All you need is an entity and an action.

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    Full Transcript:
    The following may or may not describe your experience with Word Shots. But I’d guess it’s true to at least someone’s experience:

    You want to know how to write strongly. I’ve assured you that good theory can help you get there. But now you’re seven episodes into his podcast and you haven’t seen your prose improve in any remarkable way. Last week I talked about ritualization, but I didn’t really explain what it is, and you’re finding it hard to do anything with the concept. Before that I talked about why you write. But you were already pretty good at working out why you write each thing you write, and you always aimed at recruiting and empowering your audience. You’d like to hear something that will really improve your writing.

    Very well. It’s time to descend from the heights of abstraction and get down to where pen meets paper.
    Page 1: Our First Look at Structure: The Story Kernel
    There’s a skill that too many writers lack. This skill is far easier to learn than grammar, far more quickly cultivated than a rich vocabulary. But too few writers have studied with teachers who teach it.

    The skill I’m talking about is structure.

    If you really want to empower your audience to take in and benefit from what you write, you need to understand that each member of your audience possesses a human brain, and that the human brain is wired to respond to certain kinds of things. Understanding what the mind likes to respond to will help you structure your writing so as to make a maximum impact.

    I hope the next thing I say won’t be too obvious. I’m afraid the reason for much of the bad writing we see is that people consider this fact so, obvious that it’s not worth anyone’s attention. But in fact, because it’s so important, and so neglected, I’m going to say it three times:

    People respond to stories.

    People respond to stories.

    People respond to stories.

    Of course, not everybody neglects this; if you’re one of those who gets it, please stick around. Maybe together we can work out the most potent way of converting those around us to the gospel of story, because many writers and speakers do neglect it. I think different people have different reasons for this neglect.

    Perhaps many fiction writers think it’s all just too obvious. They’re writing fiction; why do they need me to tell them to be sure to write a story? It’s like telling somebody you see running to be sure to get some exercise today.

    And non-fiction writers may think: “I’m not here to write a story. I’m writing expository, not narrative prose. If I wanted to write stories I’d become a fiction writer or a journalist.”

    Promising I won’t neglect the fiction writers forever, for this episode I’m just going to address the others.

    What expository writers need to understand is that story is the kernel of good writing. I choose the word kernel for two reasons: 1: It’s at the heart of good writing. 2: The smallest version of story is a very tiny thing indeed. It consists of nothing but an entity and an action.

    At its smallest, story structure is even smaller than sentence structure. For example, listen to this:
    “Gusts, hot, dusty gusts off the Sonoran Desert…”

    • 15 min
    Communicate to Manage Change

    Communicate to Manage Change

    All communication is about managing change. Good communication prepares the audience for the right kind of change.
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    Full Transcript
    I’ve said that the most important part of writing well is knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing. And last week I had an opportunity to chat with an excellent public speaking coach, Stephanie Silverman, who agrees. We developed the idea that most speeches and writing projects will have the best likelihood of success if the writer sets out with a twofold aim: to recruit and to empower.

    This week I want to step backward just a little. I want to talk about the purpose of all communication, of every kind. That purpose is to manage change.
    Page 1: Princess Belle and the large, pale creature.
    Before I get all theoretical about it, let’s jump right to the concrete and practical. Let’s start this episode with the story of Princess Belle and her not very charming encounter.

    Princess Belle is her online name. If I remembered her real name I wouldn’t use it here; we had enough stalking in episode 4.

    She’s two seats to my left at a long table where a number of us are, between bites of pizza and bits of conversation, typing furiously on our laptops. It’s November, and that means it’s National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. We’re at a write-in at Empire’s Comics Vault. The place is bigger than I’d expected, and I feel dwarfed by it.

    I’m meeting a number of my fellow writers for the first time, including Princess Belle, who’s about 20 years old.

    I’ve asked Princess Belle about herself, and I’ve learned a lot, including that she speaks charmingly and greatly enjoys doing so. That was an hour ago, and I’ve returned to mostly minding my own business. I’m typing and typing and typing, when I hear a voice, a great and booming voice, a voice like that of a man but somewhat larger.

    “So, you’re writing a novel, huh?”

    And I hear the far smaller voice of the Princess. “Yes. I’m trying.”

    I look to my left, and see the large pale creature, looming over the seated Princess and addressing her again.

    “So that means you have brains. And you’ve got good looks. Nice combination.”

    Oh, did I neglect to describe Princess Belle? Well, the large pale creature was right. We fiction writers are told not to take the cheap shortcut around description that I’m about to take, but the Princess makes it all too easy. Physically, she’s Audrey Hepburn at about the same age. Any difference is chump change.

    She replies, “Umh, thank you.”

    “So, I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me.”

    [Sweet Brown: Then I ran out I din’t grab no shoes or nothin’, I ran for my life.]

    Well, in truth, nobody ran. A whole tableful of writers and a few others are now looking at the large pale creature, but he doesn’t notice. It seems his four eyes are only for the Princess. Silent for a very long time, and too proud to beg us for help, she looks, alternately, at the large pale creature and her laptop. This is awkward enough that I’m wondering if someone at the table is going to bail her out. But, of course, we’re fiction writers. If it’s not really dangerous, this is the sort of thing we don’t interrupt but memorize.

    If you’re extremely surprised at this man’s behavior, maybe there’s something in the concept of a “comics shop” you don’t understand. On the other hand, if you’re not at all surprised, perhaps you yourself need a bit of schooling in the protocols of courtship.

    In any case, we will squeeze some sort of lesson from this lemon of an encounter. But not just yet.

    Page 2: Comments from my listeners.
    I’m delighted to report that my shameless begging for feedback has met with success. So much, in fact, that I can’t respond to all the responses.

    • 16 min
    Word Shots #6: Write to Recruit and Empower

    Word Shots #6: Write to Recruit and Empower

    Near the end of episode 5, I said that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. For that matter, I said, in too many cases, they’ve never clarified the why at all.

    I recorded that episode on a Wednesday. Three days later, I was listening to the radio show Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, and I heard this:

    [clip: Stephanie Silverman introduced on Wait Wait.]

    Well, after hearing such a corroboration of my idea from somebody who actually knows something, I just had to talk with Stephanie. I emailed her, she responded, and then she very generously gave me almost forty minutes of her time in two Skype calls. [clip: max and Stephanie saying hi] She didn’t tell me what I have to do to win her voice on my answering machine or voicemail, but she did answer a question about that appearance on NPR.

    Max: this is the classic cartoon reporter’s question. What was going through your mind when you gave a very serious piece of advice to Peter Sagal and the audience laughed?

    Stephanie: Well I laughed too, because I think some of the funniest things in life are also true. the truest things in life. Sometimes it’s just that simple, and I think also it was an unexpected answer. I think what got cut out of that recording was a question about whether or not people should imagine their audience in the nude or in their underwear. People are always so invested in all of these tricks and techniques to deliver a successful presentation, when really sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.
    New term: "Opus" is a communication requiring planning.
    Before I get into what Stephanie and I talked about, I have to introduce a word that you’ll hear me using a lot: opus. I use the word opus to refer to any piece of communication that requires considerable preparation. That means it includes almost any public speech, and also any piece of writing that’s much more complex than a note to your spouse to please pick up a loaf of bread. Although we may care about using good English in our everyday conversation, it’s in creating these more complex communications that we really pay close attention to craft. As I say, I call these opuses. And with that word in place, let’s get back to my talk with Stephanie.

    Successful communication is designed to recruit and to empower.
    We spent some time talking about the matter of why anyone gives a speech or writes any sort of opus. And I put forward my theory that any opus, if it’s to succeed, should have a twofold purpose: to recruit and to empower. By recruit I mean to get the audience, in some way, on your side. And empowerment, I’m pretty sure, needs no explanation. It’s a word we’ve heard so often since the mid-80s that we’re almost tired of it. There would probably be a movement to outlaw the word if it weren’t such a valuable concept. One way to look at these two aims, I said, is as the ends of a slider bar. One of the simple ways of thinking about what you’re trying to achieve with an opus is the relative weights you give to these two. If you’re teaching, then your aim, I hope, is to empower, to increase your audience’s store of some knowledge or skill. On the other hand, if you’re selling, what matters more to you is recruitment, to get the audience on your side, to make such allies of them that they’ll happily give you money.
    It’s very hard for an opus to succeed if it doesn’t combine these two aims. Here’s Stephanie on the importance of recruitment in teaching:

    • 12 min
    Episode #005: Anything You Can Do, You Can Do Meta

    Episode #005: Anything You Can Do, You Can Do Meta

    English has too many rules to remember them all. But some meta-rules can help us master the complexity.

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    Full Transcript
    Here’s what I want to do in this episode. I want to prepare you for the rest of the episodes. And here’s what I want to do in the rest of the episodes: I want to equip you to make good decisions about your use of language.

    Rules Within Rules
    In episode one, I talked about how little we can rely on rules to make our English as strong and useful as it can be. Part of the problem, I’ll remind you, is that English is so complex that, if we have to rely on conscious rules for everything, there will be just too many to remember. But think about how much life would be simplified if you had a rule that contained within it a hundred or more rules. If such a rule could exist, then to be useful, it couldn’t exactly contain the other rules; if it did, then to remember the one rule, you’d actually have to remember all the sub-rules it contains. There’d be no simplification at all. Instead, what a rule must do in order to save you from having to remember a hundred rules, is that it must be able to generate those rules.

    A rule that can generate rules is what we call a meta-rule. And the good news for all of us is that we can learn to use meta-rules as easily as we can learn to use rules.

    But wouldn’t it be great if, after discovering a few thousand meta-rules to contain the millions of rules required by English, we could then discover some meta-meta rules to contain those? And then some meta-meta-meta rules to contain those? And how far could it go? How many metas would we have to stack up to get all the rules down to a truly small number?

    Well, the fact is that each of us does have a small number of über-rules (ultra-meta-rules?) that guide us all the time. These ultra-meta-rules are our fundamental values and beliefs. These beliefs include beliefs about why we do what we do. In fact, our understanding of what it is we’re doing is a kind of belief.
    Yet More Meta
    So, if I’m going to teach you some meta-rules, I should go ahead and state what my fundamental values and beliefs are, or at least those that are relevant to the topic at hand. This is because a meta-rule can’t contain or generate an incompatible rule. This means that, if you find that your fundamental values and beliefs are very different from mine, you’ll probably also find that you won’t see much sense in the meta-rules that I’ll be teaching here. The rules I’ll generate out of my metarules won’t make sense to you if you don’t share the basic understanding out of which they grow.

    I have to confess that I haven’t tried every possible set of meta-rules. I’ve used some that grow out of my fundamental values and a theory of what language is for. I don’t believe that I can necessarily talk you into sharing my values or even my theory. Some things simply have to be taken as a starting point, because to go back to very first principles would simply take too much time and involve us in too much complexity.

    Some basics in our lives are like that. For example, the philosopher George Santayanasaid, “That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.”

    So, without trying to make a complete case for them, as if they were presuppositions, I’ll repeat the values that underlie my approach to speaking and writing:

    I respect my audience.
    I respect the English language.

    A Love That Speaks Its Name
    Time for a personal confession. I said that I respect my audience.

    • 11 min
    Episode #004: Beyond Good and Evil in Grammar

    Episode #004: Beyond Good and Evil in Grammar

    In this episode, Max discusses how a change in usage stalked and murdered a perfectly nice poem.

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    Full Transcript

    In this episode, I’m going to continue talking about the tricky matter of right versus wrong in the use of language. And I’m going to tell a story about a nasty trick that history played on a poet who probably deserved better.

    In the last episode, I made the bold statement that if you could only afford to buy one book to help you with your use of words, your first book shouldn’t be a dictionary. Today I’m going to elaborate on that a little.

    First of all, I want to say that it’s very important to have a reference that allows you to look up the definitions of words. But if you have internet access most of the time, the World Wide Web serves that need pretty well. It’s actually not a hard service to supply. What’s harder is to help you know, when you’re writing, which word you should choose out of several candidates. That’s where neither the web nor a dictionary can necessarily be counted on.
    Dictionaries are better for reading than for writing

    Let’s look at this through a different lens. Use of language is either passive or active. You’re using language passively when you’re taking it in. You’re using language actively when you’re moving it outward, in other words, when you’re speaking or writing. With that concept in place, I can say what I’m saying about dictionaries pretty easily: they’re good for passive use of language, less so for active. When you’re reading and you meet a word you don’t know, the dictionary or the web will let you look up that word. On the other hand, when you’re writing, you might look up a word if you think you know its definition but you aren’t sure. And that can be helpful. But it’s not all the help you need. If you’re not sure you know what a word means, then you’re probably not very familiar with that word. That should be a red flag. It means that although you may be choosing a word with the right denotation, which is its dictionary definition, it still might not carry the right connotation, and dictionaries aren’t a great deal of help with connotations. In fact, it’s hard for dictionaries, even online ones that are easily updated, to keep up with changes in connotation.

    In the last episode, I talked about two instances in which non-native English speakers used a word they were able to find in a dictionary, but which I’d never heard a native speaker use.

    Today’s story is about a word that changed its connotation at almost the very time a writer decided to use it, spoiling his poem for all posterity.
    Time, you thief… How changing usage ruined a good poem

    John Greenleaf Whittier was a 19th century American poet, best-known as a leading voice of the abolitionist cause. He also wrote on religious and spiritual matters, and he wrote some historical poems. He was once challenged by a woman friend to write a love poem. She said she doubted he was capable of producing one. To a nationally famous poet,

    • 12 min

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Word Shots Rocks

Putting a high, effective gloss on your word smithing will come as a result by listening to this freshly minted series of podcasts. Veteran writer and editor Max Christian Hansen opens the eyes as well as the ears to tutored possibilities of the English language. There's a lively spin on an old topic, complete with interviews of practitioners in the word mining field. Never laborious or one-sided, this podcaster is worth the time and effort for advanced writers. He easily steps off the platform of authorship negotiating other disciplines when meaningful--a refreshing, thoughtful exposure to top off any work in progress.

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