Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

A trusty dictionary to build a comfort zone round our word choices

We nonchalantly turn to our English dictionary for guidance when in doubt about our word choices and their meanings, grammatical function, spelling, pronunciation, origins, variants, or idiomatic and stylistic usage. This way, our trusty dictionary builds a comfort zone around our everyday word choices for our spoken and written English. In time, however, we might get a rough shock when told that we had misused, misspelled, or mispronounced a word or had used it to mean the exact opposite of what we wanted to say—like unconsciously using the verb “salvage” in the Philippines to mean “eliminate violently,” which, of course, is poles apart from its regular meaning of “rescue or save especially from wreckage or ruin.” It’s only then that we become aware that the English lexicon or the English dictionaries for particular parts of the English-speaking world could be using different English standards, the most common being American English and British English. And these different English standards happen to be significantly divergent in many aspects of the language—not enough to make us sound like a stranger among our own contemporaries perhaps, but just enough to make us painfully realize that we’ve been using a lexicon or dictionary in the wrong English standard all along.

This is the point of a true-to-life cautionary essay about English dictionaries that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. That essay later formed part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (Manila Times Publishing, 2009), and I remember finding occasion to post it in the Forum during its formative weeks in 2009. This time, to better contextualize the tempest in the teapot over the “abolition” or “abolishment” of the much-derided congressional pork barrel or PDAF (My Media Watch), I am posting it once again in this week’s edition of the Forum for good measure. (September 1, 2013)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

Looking More Closely at Our Dictionaries

Several years ago, when I was still managing an English-language service, I chided one of my English-language tutors for insisting on using her 1980-vintage Webster’s Desk Dictionary as reference. The day before that, I had the 11th edition of The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in compact disc loaded on the computers in our office, and had asked my staff to delete from their hard drives all old dictionaries, particularly the British-English ones—the venerable Oxford English Dictionary included. I had also asked my staff to put away all of their print copies of the British-English Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture and the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary, both of which had long ago been bought inadvertently for our use.

These acts may sound like that of an Anglo-hater gone mad, but I assure you that there was rhyme and reason to them: I wanted to thoroughly bring the small company’s English usage to the American English standard. I was therefore a bit miffed that one of my staff should cavalierly resist the standardization effort, claiming that she was more comfortable using her fading but trusted Webster’s. So, not entirely in jest, I gave her an ultimatum: keep that dictionary out of sight, or I would throw it into the dustbin myself.

My reason for banning British-English dictionaries and outdated American-English dictionaries from our office was dictated not by a sudden anti-British feeling or spite for things old, but by a very pragmatic consideration: the business depended greatly on the consistency of our English grammar, form, and semantics with American English as the standard. We could ill afford even the slightest variation in the spellings, meanings, and usage of the language, in our understanding of its idioms, and in its punctuations, prepositions, and conjunctions. 

It had become clear to me that our mixed used of British-English and American-English dictionaries was responsible for not a few of our gaffes—some innocuous, some serious—like spelling the word “center” as “centre,” “check” as “cheque,” and “aluminum” as “aluminium”; thinking of corn” as “grain” instead of “maize”; using the wrong prepositions in sentences like “We live in a quiet street in the city and stay in a farm cottage at weekends” (that’s how the British say and write it, while Americans put it this way: “We live on a quiet street in the city and stay in a farm cottage on weekends”); and worse yet, using the wrong quotation marks and putting commas at the wrong places in quoted material.

A few months back, in particular, when a new editor of ours made a final copyreading pass on a long manuscript, she methodically replaced all of the double quotes with single quotes and took out all of the commas inside them and put them outside the quotes, British-style, like this: ‘This was the title of Paul Zindel’s book, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”, and I thought it rather queer.’ Before that, the sentence used American-English punctuation, like this: “This was the title of Paul Zindel’s book, ‘The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,’ and I thought it rather queer.” We were already way past our deadline, so we had to undo her well-meaning but ruinous work in white-hot haste.

Using a dictionary in the wrong English standard could, in fact, not only wreak havoc on our English but trigger needless controversies as well. Once, when a Filipino-Canadian reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times used the word “miniscule” in a letter that I quoted in that column, the newspaper’s editor in chief told me in good-humored ridicule that I was foisting the wrong spellings of English words on readers. “‘Miniscule’,” he said, “should be spelled ‘minuscule’—with a ‘u’ and not an ‘i’.” When I stood my ground, he opened the Oxford English Dictionary for me and for all of the other editors who were present to see. To my dismay, it confirmed “minuscule” as the official spelling, making only a passing reference to “miniscule” as a variant. 

Checking the online Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary later, I discovered that it was even harsher on “miniscule”: “a common spelling of ‘minuscule’ that is not correct.” To my relief, though, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language accepts the variant without comment, and I also took comfort in my electronic Merriam-Webster’s assurance that while “miniscule” continues to be widely regarded as an error, it now commonly occurs in published writing.

Most of the English dictionaries we had on hand, of course, whether using the American or British English standard, were products of great scholarship, but in that former language business of mine, there was a screaming need for only one English standard and only one English-language authority. We simply had to be scrupulously consistent and current in our English, and it just so happened that in the Philippines and in many parts of Asia, the standard for English is American English. We really had no choice then but to begin to live up to that standard by getting a good, up-to-date American English dictionary—and that, I am happy to say, was precisely what I had done.
From Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

Six Informal Prescriptions for Writing Better in English

1 – One Man’s Meat

Dear Jay:

You asked me last week to give you advice on what books to read to help you develop your communication skills. I will tell you at the very outset that you will need to read and talk a lot to become a good communicator. Of course, to become one doesn’t mean that you have to be a certified bookworm or a fiery interscholastic debater. You could, in fact, be worse off aiming to be either. Many of the certified bookworms I know became so detached from reality that they started to talk to themselves, to plants, and later to things you couldn’t touch or see. And not a few of the spellbinding college debaters in my time had metamorphosed into lawyers who would argue anything and everything to death, or into politicians who are horribly long on rhetoric and promises but woefully short on tangible results.

I take it that you are probably a high school or college student or a professional having some difficulty in your written or spoken English. I would therefore presume that you still don’t have The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. It is a very slim, spare, but eminently useful book on the basic rules of English usage. My old third edition is always near me on my desk and I always consult it when I am suddenly seized by doubt about my English. (And there is a great bonus in reading the two co-authors, both consummate stylists of the English language: Strunk, a veteran newspaper editor, taught English 8 as a Cornell University professor, and White was one of his students. White went on to become one of the finest essayists in the English language. Many years later he updated his mentor’s English stylebook, which by then had already become a classic, and on the side wrote fascinating animal stories like The Talking Swan and—would you believe?—Stuart Little the mouse.)

But if you want your English prose to be more methodical, forceful, and stronger in logic, I would suggest you buy yourself a copy and read The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. I discovered this highly instructive book only after college, and it is much to be regretted that, at a time that I needed it most, I did not have its nuts-and-bolts wisdom in doing the essay. I have yet to see another book on English writing that matches Payne’s very forceful and lucid discussion of “the hooks of language,” and how your increasing mastery of them can actually mark your progress as a writer.

Now, if you are already confident of your English but simply wish to develop a practical and saleable prose style in your business or career, get yourself On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction by William K. Zinsser. Many years ago this book knocked some sense into my head when I was rushing headlong on a purely literary route in my writing. Zinsser showed me that you need not be a Dylan Thomas or a William Faulkner to be understood, get published, and get income from English prose. The book, now on its 25th edition, will be a great companion volume to The Elements of Style and The Lively Art of Writing. They are all you’ll really ever need for basic equipment to confidently navigate the terrain of the English language and travel in comfort with it.

These three basic readings in English writing will, of course, not be enough to make you an accomplished or great writer. They will only provide you with a wealth of devices to focus your thoughts and to edit and rewrite yourself. You can be sure that once you have read them and taken their prescriptions for good English prose to heart, you will already have won half the battle. To win the other half, of course, you will need further instruction on the writing craft. But you don’t have to go far to get that instruction. To me, the best English writing teachers have been—and still are—the masters of the writing craft. If you are serious about your English, I suggest that you seek them out every now and then, maybe just one at a time, for good measure.

Begin with Loren Eiseley. I have not found a better than this consummate stylist in showing the great lyric power that can be achieved with English prose. Try The Immense Journey, his maiden collection of essays about animal and human evolution, and make it a point to read his other works later. Then go back to E. B. White and read his very lucid and compelling essays on city life and its frustrations, such as One Man’s Meat and The Essays of E. B. White. After that, get a little bite (but not too much) of H. L. Mencken, that savage American iconoclast who, with incomparable wit and style, had mastered the art of taking the blinkers off people’s eyes. And then, to round off your readings on great English prose, read The Lives of the Cell by Lewis Thomas. This microbiologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning master of the essay can explain the intricate workings of life clearly and magically by getting under our skins with pleasure instead of pain.

This, Jay, is essentially the road I have taken to arrive where I am in English prose. It is admittedly just one man’s meat. It may be poison to some academics who may howl and rant against the poverty and eclecticism of my reading suggestions. Well, let them. I am too delighted to mind. You have asked me a question that I have wanted to answer for many years, except that nobody asked until you did. For this reason, I hope you will have as much pleasure in reading my answer as I am having now in writing it.

Joe Carillo

2 - The Fireside-Chat Technique

One major reason why even highly intelligent, well-educated people find it difficult to write is that they have not learned to get into the proper frame of mind for it. They stare at the blank paper or the blank computer screen with dread, wracking their brains to find that voice that can make their writing sparkle and become more persuasive, more convincing, perhaps more impressive. But more often than not, even the first line of what they want to say eludes them. This is because they cannot even form a clear mental picture of who they are writing to. The same people who can effortlessly carry on lively, brilliant conversations with their associates or deliver spellbinding speeches to huge audiences suddenly develop imaginary stage fright when writing, browbeaten into inaction by a faceless audience in their minds.

There is actually a very simple, straightforward technique to combat this mental paralysis. Just imagine an audience of one—only one. Forget about all the others who may have an interest in what you have to say; you will have time to bring them into the picture much, much later. Just focus on this audience of one—your boss, your staff, a critic, a lover, in fact anyone in particular—and imagine that he or she is right in front of you beside a nicely burning fireplace. For a reason that I will tell you later, make sure that it is a fireplace and not a living room sofa or dining table. Once this becomes clear in your mind, state your case gently, carefully answering every possible objection from your audience of one, clarifying when necessary but never arguing. When you are through, simply stop, then quietly ask your audience of one what he or she thinks. That’s all. No verbal pyrotechnics or literary flourishes. Just plain and simple talk.

You will be surprised by what the fireside-chat approach can do to your English writing, no matter what form it takes—memo, letter, essay, speech, or feature article. It will be virtually impossible for you to use legalese, gobbledygook, or wordy phrases. You will know it in your bones how ridiculous it is to use them. Just imagine how a sensible, intelligent person facing you will react to gobbledygook like this: “Sir, urban life in the context of the worsening population problem and traffic situation has taken its toll on me and my family. This realization has compelled me to make a major decision that I realize may affect the operations of the division whose management you have so kindly entrusted to me. Much to my regret, however, I am taking this occasion to inform you that my family and I have reached a decision to move...” 

This is often the way memos on such sensitive subjects are written, but if you spoke this way during a fireside chat, your listener obviously will conclude that you have gone out of your mind. He may just decide to fire you ahead of your resignation, or shove you into the fireplace to put you back to your senses. Now you know why we need that fireplace there: it is not only for intimacy but for a quick reality check as well.

More likely, of course, when your thoughts are suitably tempered by the fireside ambiance, you will get rid of your legalese, gobbledygook, and wordy phrases and speak in plain and simple English, probably in this manner: “Sir, city life has become very difficult for me and my family. We can no longer bear the congestion and the traffic. I like my job and I am grateful to you for making me a division manager, but my family and I have decided to move...” Isn’t this the tenor of thought that you have been looking for all along? Imagining a fireside chat with an audience of one will not only make it possible but inevitable! This authentic human voice is really the only sensible way to talk about things that really matter to people. It is, believe me, also the most sensible and effective way to write to anyone other than yourself.

The fireside-chat technique actually uses the same formula that works so well in public speaking. You know the routine. Speak to only one person in the audience at any one time. Fix that person in the eye and imagine that you are speaking only to her and no one else, and once you have made your point, do the same to another person in the audience, and so on. Addressing all of the audience at the same time will require you to shift your eyes like crazy and focus on no one, making you look ridiculous.

So next time, when you find it difficult to write, simply use the fireside-chat technique. It may not make you a great writer, but it surely will make you a much better communicator than you are right now.
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

3 - Editing Oneself

Like most people, it took me a long time to discover that what matters more in writing is not so much what we want to say but what the readers want to know. This, I think, is the biggest single reason why most of the writing we see around us is stiff, obtuse, and uncommunicative. Many writers forget or don’t even think about who their readers or listeners are. They do a secret monologue to themselves. 

No wonder then that so many articles for academic journals just end up talking to the paper they are written on, and why many of the speeches we hear are so obtuse they might as well be delivered before an empty hall. Most of the writing that comes my way to be edited, in fact, shows very little evidence of honest-to-goodness effort to connect to the reader or listener. The research is often competent, but the prose almost always suffers from the dead weight of piled-up, undigested, and impersonally expressed information. 

Take this lead sentence of a draft speech that I edited sometime ago: “Aldous Huxley wrote brilliantly about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity.” Of course, only someone who has read several books about Huxley, about hallucinogens, and about creativity can legitimately make such an audacious thesis—and the writer in this case obviously had not done so. What I did then was to recast the passage so the author could more modestly say it in the first-person singular and make the proper attributions: “A few days ago, I came across this brilliant but disturbing idea by Aldous Huxley, who wrote about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity. Let me share it with you and comment about it as I go along …” By doing so, I saved the writer from the embarrassment of making a tall claim totally outside his level of expertise. 

This is actually a simple paradox: you become authoritative only when you write or speak as yourself. You can comfortably talk only about the things you really know, and only after you have declared the limits of your knowledge. Readers and audiences have a sixth sense for claimed authority that’s not really there, no matter if you have an MA or PhD tacked to your name. I therefore suggest you try this approach if you already have a draft of anything that’s bothering you for its dryness and stiffness, or for not being entirely original. See how this personal approach can perk up your prose and make it sound more interesting. 

One final thought about self-editing: no draft is ever sacrosanct and final. There’s always a better way to say what you have written. With today’s word processors, it’s so much easier now to clarify prose that would otherwise mystify or confuse, or to support abstract concepts with telling details and picture words. You can easily transpose whole sentences and paragraphs, even turn your draft totally upside down until it captures precisely what you have in your mind. The mechanical constraints against total rewrites are gone. 

And just when everything seems to be already in place, go over your draft once more. Knock off any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t contribute to the idea or mood you want to convey. Stop only when you have whittled down your manuscript until it’s in danger of collapsing if you attempted to excise another word. In time, you will discover what many successful writers already know but rarely publicly admit: that good writing is really the art of rewriting, the art of doing brutal surgery on one’s own thoughts.
From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

4 – Giving a Touch of Authority to Our Prose

“What a pair we make,” whispered the Prince of Wales to the pilloried presumptive royal knight William in the riotously charming 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, “both trying hard to hide who we are, both unable to do so.”

For those who have not seen the movie, the prince was constrained to shed off his disguise as a monk among the lynching mob to save the disgraced knight, who a few days earlier had spared him from the ignominy of certain defeat by refusing to joust with him in a tournament. The knight, through the machinations of a villainous duke, was thereafter unmasked as a lowly thatcher’s son masquerading as a member of royalty, thus leading to his arrest and humiliation on the pillory.

This medieval morality tale gives a powerful insight into the crucial need to speak and act in keeping with who we think, presume, or pretend we are. When we write, in particular, we must use language that conveys our thoughts in ways that validate and support our own self-concept or projection of ourselves. The wife of the Caesar must not only be chaste but must look and sound chaste. The professor must really look and sound professorial. The presidentiable must really look and sound presidentiable. To fail to do this in both civilized and uncivilized society—or not to have the wisdom or guile to at least sustain the charade—is to invite catastrophe, which is precisely what brought the presumptive knight to the pillory for public lynching.

Be that as it may, our most potent tool for becoming credible is what the linguists call suasive diction. This is using language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts. No instrument is more potent for doing that, of course, than the writer’s or speaker’s vocabulary. Our words define us. Whether armed with excellent research or dubious information, whether motivated by good or bad intentions, we can turn off the audience with awkward or leaden words, or hold it in thrall with engaging words and well-turned phrases. It is largely through word choice, in fact, that we establish our credibility and rapport with our audience. Short of coercion or the force of arms, rarely can persuasive communication take place without this credibility and rapport.

The most basic technique for suasive diction is the proper use of the pronouns of power, namely “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them.” These innocent-looking pronouns can confer a sense of authority—the illusion of authority, if you may—to our written or spoken statements far beyond what the first-person singular can give. The first-person “I” and “me” speak only for the solitary communicator; on the other hand, the collective “we” and “us” speak for an entire group or institution, which people normally take for granted as less fallible and less prone to vainglory than the individual—hence presumed to be more credible, more authoritative.

This, for instance, is why newspaper editorials routinely use the institutional “we” although they are usually crafted by a solitary writer not so high on the paper’s editorial totem pole; it’s also why tyrants and despots of every stripe and persuasion always invoke “the right vested in me by God/ law/ the sovereign people” to seize power or hold on to it, and why candidates of paltry qualification and virtue invariably invoke “the people’s great desire for change” or “divine signs in the sky” as their passport to public office.

Of course, “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them” work just as well as pronouns of solidarity. They foster a stronger sense of closeness and intimacy with the audience, and can more easily put audiences at ease with what the speaker has to say. In contrast, the first person “I” often comes across as too one-sided and self-serving, particularly in writing, while the second person “you” can sound too pedantic and intimidating. We stand a much greater chance of getting a fair hearing from those antagonistic to our position by making them think that we are actually on their side.

Even if we are good at using the pronouns of power and solidarity, however, we must not for a minute believe that they are all we need to achieve suasive diction. The facts supporting our contention must be substantial and accurate. Our opinions must be truly informed, not half-baked, and our logic must be sound and beyond reproach. Otherwise, we may have to put on an act like that of the seemingly enlightened prince in A Knight’s Tale, lying to the lynching mob about the parentage of William the thatcher’s son, then justifying that lie by nonchalantly invoking royal infallibility: “He may appear to be of humble origins, but my personal historians have discovered that he is descended from an ancient royal line. This is my word, and as such is beyond contestation.”

A big lie indeed, but said with the confidence of a true royal. (March 16, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 16, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

5 – Is there really an optimal way of writing well for everyone?

In time, each one of us develops a uniquely personal way of putting our thoughts in writing, whether in simple compositions like e-mails, memos, and letters or in creative work like short stories, plays, or  novels. But many of us sometimes can’t help asking ourselves this question: Is the way we write correct and optimal? Or are there better and more efficient ways of getting the writing task done?

Theoretically, there should be an optimal way of writing well, and scores of books have been published over the years making all sorts of prescriptions to achieve this. Knowing how idiosyncratic writers and the writing craft are, however, I really don’t think it’s advisable to prescribe a specific approach to writing for everyone. Obviously, what works best for the writer personally is the best approach for him or her, and I believe that a much better measure of the effectiveness of that approach is the quality of the written output along with how fast it is completed.

In an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in 
The Manila Times in October last year, “Should writers finish their compositions first before editing?”, I articulated my thoughts about the writing craft along this line. It was in response to an e-mail I received from a Forum member who wondered if she was on the right track with the way she writes. I am now posting that essay in the Forum as food for thought for everyone who writes, particularly those similarly beset with doubts about how they do it.   

Should writers finish their compositions first before editing?  

We write the way we write, and that unique way—for better or for worse—often becomes integral to what we might call our personal writing style. But are certain ways to write better than others? 

Forum member Miss Mae was wondering if she was on the right track with the way she writes, so she sent me the following note by e-mail:

“One writing quirk I had was that I cannot write without writing down first. That is, literally penning my thoughts on paper before producing a final copy. It was laborious, all right, but what can I do? It was what worked for me in my high school and college years.

“I have had to adjust, though, when I began working. I was able to, but I developed another problem. Mindful of my grammar incompetence, I can’t help fussing over what I’ve just written. I learned somewhere that that should not be the case. Writers must finish their compositions before editing. Is that always true?”

My answer to Miss Mae probably would also apply to many others in a similar predicament:

Oh, Miss Mae, don’t you fret about your tendency to fuss over what you’ve just written! It’s a perfectly normal thing to fuss over your prose whether you are supremely confident or somewhat doubtful of your grammar competence. So long as you don’t obsessively and perpetually fuss over every little detail to the point of not making any progress at all—like the neurotic Mr. Monk, the hilariously perfectionist private detective in that TV series—you are OK. This is because when we write, we’re actually attempting to capture and share some of our thoughts for an audience, whether for just one reader or—in the case of writing for publication—a few thousands or millions of them. And we obviously want our writing to be not only grammatically and semantically flawless but clear, concise, readable, and convincing as well. Writing for an audience is nothing less than a public performance, so it’s but natural for us to put our best foot forward when doing so.

I must also tell you that except perhaps for short, pro-forma memos, letters, or instructions, it simply isn’t the norm for writers to be able to finish writing a composition first before editing it. From what I’ve seen over the years, in fact, most writers are like you and me—they correct or edit themselves along the way as they write. I don’t know of any writer who can complete a full-fledged essay, feature article, or opinion piece of sizable length in his or her mind before sitting down to write it, much less put it to paper or word processor without letup from beginning to finish. Anybody who tells you that he or she can routinely do this is either not telling the truth or is nothing less than a genius with photographic memory and total recall to boot. 

I think it’s the lot of most writers, whether amateur or professional, to write in fits and starts. They first take down notes about their impressions and initial ideas, juggle and juxtapose them into tentative statements in their heads or on paper, then start organizing and logically linking them into sentences, paragraphs, and entire compositions. Experienced writers are able to do this at a faster clip, of course, but they generally do so in the same way that you described your own writing process: literally pen thoughts on paper first and fuss over them before producing a final draft. In short, Miss Mae, your writing process isn’t quirkish at all but is actually the norm for most writers. And with more experience and practice, you’ll find this writing process becoming much easier, simpler, and faster—sometimes even a joy—to execute. (October 9, 2010)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 9, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

6 - Writing to hook the reader

In an essay that I wrote about the language of the Philippine national election campaign in 2004, I briefly discussed the classic advertising acronym AIDA, which I said was an opera of sorts in four acts: A for “Attention,” I for “Interest,” D for “Desire,” and a different A for “Action.” It struck me at the time that like advertising people and propagandists, all communicators in general—and that, of course, includes fiction and nonfiction writers and writers for the mass media as well—must  do their own unique performance of AIDA to get their message across and get people to think things their way. And that, of course, wouldn’t happen at all if they didn’t perform the very first of the four acts of the writing opera: the “Attention” cue, or getting the reader interested to read them in the first place. 

I am thus tempted to begin discussing AIDA’s first A by saying that writers should come up with a creative opening that will hold readers by their lapels and never let go, but that would really be begging the point. Creativity is an elusive thing. It worked for the American novelist Herman Melville when he began his classic Moby Dick with this disarming three-word opening, “Call me Ishmael.” It worked for the Austrian writer Franz Kafka with this intriguing opening of The Metamorphosis, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” And it worked for American legal-thriller writer Scott Turow in this compelling first paragraph of his novel Personal Injuries, “He knew it was wrong, and that he was going to get caught. He said he knew this day was coming.” 

But what’s creative and interesting to us may either be too simple and too inconsequential to some, or too complex and too high-flown to others. There really is no single, fixed formula for it. The only mandatory thing is that whatever the chosen approach and style, the writer must be keenly aware of his or her primal obligation to keep the reader reading from beginning to finish. 

I remember very well a consummate master of the “Attention” cue, but he was actually not a nonfiction or fiction writer; he was a noted Filipino industrial designer who used to ply the lecture circuit many years ago. His subject during a seminar-workshop I attended one hot summer afternoon was—if my memory serves me well—advertising communication, with focus on AIDA. We were just through with lunch after a hectic morning schedule, so most of us in the audience were naturally fagged and inattentive. 

At that point, there came this bemoustached, bespectacled gentleman in his mid-forties carrying a tall stack of books, lecture notes, marking pens, boxes of marbles and paper clips—all those many little things you’d expect an intense university professor to haul into a classroom. He bellowed “Good afternoon!” to us, then promptly stumbled halfway to the lectern on the farther side of the room. As he made an effort to check his fall, all the things he was carrying flew helter-skelter over to us in the audience. That startled everyone, of course, so everybody’s impulse was to help the seemingly hapless and goofy lecturer gather his things. We were scampering all over the place picking them up, while he quietly took his time to regain his lost dignity and compose himself behind the lectern. 

And when we had retrieved most of his things and had returned them to him, the sly fox spoke to us as if nothing untoward at all had happened: “Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen! And now that I have your attention, I think you are now all ready for my lecture.” As might be expected, despite the ungodly timeslot, he and his talk turned out to be the most interesting and illuminating part of that seminar-workshop. 

Of course I’m not saying that we should emulate that lecturer’s guts in pulling off such a messy attention-getting caper; I find it too high-handed and I simply can’t imagine myself doing it in any situation. Still, I think it drives home my point very well. Whether we are selling a presidential candidate, hawking a consumer product, writing a feature story or newspaper column, perhaps writing literary fiction, we simply can’t escape the need to get the reader’s attention. If we can’t get it, the whole writing effort is wasted. That’s where performing our little “Attention” act from AIDA comes in. Call it showmanship, call it skill, call it art, call it creativity, call it by any other name—but do it, and give it the best you can. (April 19, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 19, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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