Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Improving the Quality of Your Writing

blacked-outMorgan and I work with students to produce written reports all the time. Sometimes, they’re working on their senior capstone project, which culminates in a formal written thesis… other times, they are working on shorter reports. Ultimately, the goal of writing is to produce an artifact that will effectively communicate a specific message to a specific audience. What people don’t as easily recognize, however, is that for this to occur — the audience has to understand what you’re trying to say.  Since we’re academics, we write all the time (sometimes well, and sometimes badly). We’re used to writing one draft, and then another, and then another… serving as our own worst critic every time we pick up the paper with fresh new eyes. Sometimes, we benefit from the critiques of an external reviewer, and when we hear what they have to say — more often than not, we say “yep, I didn’t do that part well… I’ll try again.” And then we try again and again, never really getting it perfect, but sometimes getting it close.

What follows are some comments Morgan provided to one of our students after the student submitted a portion of a thesis draft for us to review. We quickly realized that we could give almost all of our students the exact same advice. So here are some tips to help you improve the quality of your writing… and it usually starts with eliminating most of what you started with.


Let’s start with the quality of your writing. This feedback may come across as harsh, but it is not intended to be so. Please rest assured that Nicole and I have your best interests at heart, and since this is perhaps one of the last opportunities you’ll have in your educational career to get detailed, personal feedback on your writing, we feel it is our responsibility to be blunt and honest with you. This may be your last chance to really work to improve before you enter a professional setting. So you might want to brace yourself because this may sting.

Okay, here’s the bad news: your writing is shockingly bad. If I didn’t know better, I would be convinced that English is not your native language. If you were to write like this in a professional setting, you would certainly embarrass yourself and it might actually damage your career.

The good news is that you can improve and we’re going to help you. Before I make specific guidance on your draft, I’d like you to take the first stab at revising what you’ve written so far. Here are your instructions. Please follow them closely.

Do not spend any time apologizing to us, or making excuses for your writing. Everyone starts somewhere. You need to not be self-conscious, and be open to really working on getting better.

Stand or sit in front of a mirror and read what you wrote out loud to yourself. I’m totally serious about this. It may feel silly to you, but it will help tremendously. I know from talking to you that you talk and communicate like a totally normal person. I also know from experience teaching many people that it is not uncommon for people, who can have normal conversations, to totally fall apart when they try to communicate in writing. As you read your paper to yourself, imagine that you are listening to someone else read this paper to you and that it is not your own work. Trust your gut. If it sounds weird or bad, it probably is.

Every time you hear a sentence that sounds strange, put a mark on the paper to indicate that the sentence needs to be revised, but don’t make any changes yet.

Once you’ve read the whole paper out loud to yourself, go through the paper again. Read each sentence one by one and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of this sentence?
  • What vital information does it convey?
  • Could it be said in a much simpler, more direct way?
  • If I erased this sentence altogether, would it change the meaning or impact of the paragraph?
  • What was I trying to say? Listen to the words that just came out of your mouth when you answered that question. Why didn’t you just say that?
  • Is there anything else I could do to improve this sentence?

If the answer to questions 1 and 2 are “I don’t know” or “none” then you should delete the sentence. If you get to question 3 and the answer is “yes” then revise the sentence to make it shorter and more direct. For question 4, read the whole paragraph leaving out this sentence. If the meaning of the paragraph doesn’t change, then delete the sentence. If the sentence is still there and you get to question 5, then make any final changes and move on.

You might find that you need to revise earlier sentences based on changes you make on later sentences. It’s okay to go back.

As you do this, don’t be discouraged. Persevere. This should be tough, but I think you’ll find several things:

  • Your draft will probably be 50% shorter without losing any meaning. This is a GOOD thing!!!
  • It will feel much better and be much easier to understand, both for yourself and for other people.

Here are a couple of other pointers:

  • Don’t use an inflated font size.
  • I know for a fact that the default font size in Google Docs is not 14. Just stick to the default, which is 11. Regardless of whether this was your intention, boosting the font size makes it look like you’re trying to make us think you wrote more than you did. Since shorter is better, this doesn’t help you in any way.
  • Stick to single spacing.
  • Again, stick with the default. You can take care of formatting the document at the very end, after you know that you’ve got the content right.

A lot of this restates the feedback we give you in every one of the classes you’ve taken with us. Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Only include a sentence if it really adds something to the narrative.

Unless they really convey something crucial, leave out images for the time being. Don’t include images just to make the report “look pretty” or to take up space. Pretend you’re writing for Wikipedia. Include the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts. Don’t embellish.

Don’t try to make it fluffy or sound like marketing. Keep it clean. Keep it objective.

Okay, whew. I know I’ve just thrown a lot at you, but stay positive. My goal is not to tear you down, but to support you in getting better. This is uncomfortable sometimes. You are working on really amazing stuff and I have confidence in you that you can do something that we’ll all be proud of. Hang in there!

Randomly Sample Twitter Followers in R

Image Credit: Doug Buckley at http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley at http://hyperactive.to

So yesterday, I set up an #AmazonGiveaway for my new R book at https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/ea32d421d8d7672d — but I had my 10 year old input the number that will determine every nth person who gets the printed copy delivered to them, so that I’d be surprised too when it happened. Well I got surprised today, because nothing’s happened yet… he must have set the number pretty high. I’m a little impatient, so I decided that today I’d like to randomly sample my most recent 100 Twitter followers and send 3 eBooks to whoever comes up.

Turns out, it was pretty simple once I found the right documentation. This was the first time I’ve successfully accessed information from Twitter within R; when I tried other times, the documentation I encountered was problematic and the authentication never worked. But I finally converged on excellent documentation which helped to solve my problem at http://geoffjentry.hexdump.org/twitteR.pdf.

First, I went to https://apps.twitter.com/app/new and set up an application called “random-new-followers”. I think the choice of name is totally arbitrary… Twitter just wants a way to track who’s using their API and how it’s being used. I gave this form my name and web site URL as well. Next, I went to the “Keys and Access Tokens” tab. I had to click the “Create Access Token” button at the bottom. Once I did, I had 4 different access keys to work with, each of which looks like an unwieldy string of numbers and letters and has one of the following four names:

  • Consumer Key (API Key)
  • Consumer Secret (API Secret)
  • Access Token
  • Access Token Secret

Then I went into my R console. First, I wanted to make sure I had the most recent copy of the httr and twitteR packages. After using .libPaths() to find out where my R packages are installed, I went into those directories and blew away the old folders containing httr and twitteR. Then I went into R and re-installed the two packages:

> install.packages("httr")
> library(httr)
> install.packages("twitteR")
> library(twitteR)

At this point, authenticating and getting access to the Twitter data was pretty straightforward:

setup_twitter_oauth("Consumer Key", "Consumer Secret",access_token="Access Token", access_secret="Access Token Secret")

(When YOU use the above code, be sure to plug in the long, unwieldy number-and-letter combinations you saw on your “Keys and Access Tokens” tab. They are unique to you… and this is what unlocks twitteR so you can get real data!) Next, you can specify the user whose information you’d like to obtain, and using getFollowers() you can find out information about their followers:

oauth-example

Notice that I only wanted to randomly sample from my most recent 100 followers, hence the [1:100]. The names that pop up in quotation marks are my random sample of followers. (If you wanted to sample from all your Twitter followers, just leave out the [1:100].) After I got my three random followers, I checked out their Twitter pages. The bad news? I think they are all bots 🙁

(So then I filtered out anyone who had “811” or “#AmazonGiveaway” in their recent Tweets.)

There is a lot more information that’s obtained when you try getUser() from the twitteR package. If you’ve gotten this far, check out all of the interesting information (and methods) that are contained in the results by typing this:

> str(me)

Quality and Innovation in the Counterculture

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

This week, I was the guest blogger at the American Society for Quality’s “View from the Q” where I shared some anecdotes about encountering quality tools and concepts at Burning Man this past August.

Check it out and learn what’s so great about “MOOP“.

How Not to Deliver on Your Mission

rex-familyI’m sitting here in my hotel room at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar in downtown Toronto. It could have been an amazing experience… even though the room itself is tiny, the bed is functional but definitely not plush, and there’s quite a bit of road noise. You see, there’s a world class jazz band playing downstairs right now. Perhaps they haven’t even started… I’ve no way to know.

I arrived here around 8pm after a long, 10-hour drive from the fantastic BIF10 meeting in Providence. Although the reservations desk was closed, a nice sign instructed me to go to the bar, where it was very easy to order a beer and a sandwich and get my hotel room and bar tab taken care of in one fell swoop. It felt nice. I was enjoying the ambience, until halfway through my second beer when an older man came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.

“You’re going to have to vacate this seat for a paying customer. There’s a band coming in at 9:30.”

This was kind of confusing to me, since I was on my second beer, was done with my sandwich, and had just invested $115 in a room for the night. “I’m staying here,” I let him know.

Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone has to pay the $15 cover. It’s not included in your room.” He was gruff and unyielding, kind of like a New Yorker. (I wasn’t expecting that… I thought Canadians were far more collegial, eh?) He walked away, leaving me to think about what just happened.

About 10 minutes later my bartender came over. “Would you like another beer?” he asked.

“Well, apparently I can’t have one,” I said. “Some other man told me I needed to vacate unless I wanted to pay a $15 cover, even though I’m staying here.”

“That’s right,” the younger guy cheerfully acknowledged. “The shows are not part of the hotel room. Either you pay the cover or you have to leave.”

I’m not one to argue, but this made me really mad. I let him know that this “very important detail” was not on the Hotel’s web site. Nor had anyone told me about it. “Well,” he said, “if you had arrived earlier, the doorman would have told you, and it’s also on your information sheet.” So you see, it was all my fault already. I was late and I didn’t read the sheet.

“Where is my information sheet?”

“Upstairs, on the bed, in the room you haven’t checked into yet.” (Whew. I thought I’d missed it.) I explained to him that I came a half hour out of my way to experience the Rex. I could have stayed in the ASQ conference hotel, nearer the airport, for less. But I came here for the experience of a hotel and a jazz club, together – the home-like nature of being able to weave in and out of the club atmosphere as I’d like. I was so encouraged by their marketing materials that said I’d “feel like part of the family”. He said he was sorry, again, but there was nothing they could do. (Really? It would have been so nice just to be able to sit there and finish that last beer for the evening. I probably would have headed upstairs shortly after the show started, anyway.)

In addition to a “sorry” — he tried to convince me of the value of this very prominent New York band that was about to start, and it was important that they collected the extra $15 from everyone. More important than just letting me finish my dinner.

(Apparently, you interrupt the family while they’re in the middle of their dinner to pay $15 or give up their seat.)

This sent a very strong message. In fact, it felt like extortion must feel (to a lesser extent). You’re not welcome unless you pay ANOTHER $15. You need to leave your seat NOW so someone who’s willing to pay can get in!! Doesn’t matter that you have paid quite a bit. You need to pay more. Sorry.

Could I at least come downstairs a little later (after I write my blog post to vent about this service experience) to get a beer and take it downstairs, I asked?

“Sure, if you pay the $15 first. We’re happy to direct you to other bars.” Well, unfortunately, I think you’ve directed me to other bars (and hotels) permanently. Or maybe it’s fortunate. It would be difficult to feel less wanted and welcome somewhere else.

Dear Rex, I do not feel like part of the family. I am upstairs in my room, feeling like the wayward child who’s not included from the festivities because she didn’t bring an extra $15. Feeling like I couldn’t even stick around to finish my dinner. I wish I could leave now where I feel more welcome — even at a nameless, faceless chain hotel that doesn’t say that it would LIKE me to feel like family, but I’m parked in overnight public parking, and I don’t have anywhere else to go. You claim that you are “attentive, convenient, and down-to-earth friendly.” But all I got was a “sorry you didn’t see our policy.”

LESSON TO SERVICE PROVIDERS: Include that extra $15 in the room charge. Make the guest feel welcome at the show, even if they choose not to attend. If they didn’t know the policy (because you don’t have it on your web site), figure out a way to make accommodations. Or they might see fit to write a blog post to 100,000 quality practitioners across the globe who might be able to learn from this and not make the same mistake.

We’re Back Online!

In the almost 8 years I’ve had this blog online, I can’t remember having a major outage that put me offline.

That is, until today. My domain registration got decoupled from my blog hosting setup on 3/27 and armageddon ensued. Only I didn’t know the site was down until this morning. Fortunately it was a disaster narrowly averted — and everything is now back to normal.

Just got back from visiting the Downtown Project in Las Vegas… a hive of social innovation and good vibes. More to follow (including pictures).

Getting Deep With Value Creation

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

In his November post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski asks “What new fields or disciplines could most reap the benefits of quality tools and techniques?”

He notes that although the tradition of quality assurance, control, and improvement emerged from manufacturing, the techniques are now widely acknowledged and applied in many fields such as healthcare, education, and service. So what’s next?

One of the things I like to do when I’m trying to be a futurist is to go back to first principles. Explore the basis for why we do what we do… what makes us tick… why we like improving quality and making processes more effective, more efficient. And in doing so, while reflecting on Paul’s question, I think what’s next is…

Getting Deep with Value Creation.

As quality professionals we spend most of our time and energy figuring out how to create value. Either we’re improving the systems we work with to tweak out additional value, or we’re working with customers and stakeholders to figure out how to provide them with more value, or we’re focusing on innovation – figuring out how to create value for the future — reliably, consistently, and according to new and unexpected business models.

To me, this starts with me. How can I improve myself so that I’m a kickass vessel for the delivery of value? How can I use quality principles and quality tools to find – and align myself – with what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time? How can I become most productive in terms of the deep, meaningful value I add to those around me?

I know that others feel the same way. Marc Kelemen, a member of the ASQ Board of Directors, is leading a charge to develop a Body of Knowledge for Social Responsibility. He recognizes that the personal element is crucial if we’re trying to become socially responsible as teams, and organizations, and communities. So we’ll be working on this over the next few months… figuring out how to get deep with the notion of value creation, and how we can do it within ourselves so that we are better positioned to help others do it too.

Thrivability: A Sneaky Awesome Little Book About Innovation

thrivabilityI just got done reading Jean Russell’s new book, Thrivability, from Triarchy Press. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most compelling book about innovation that’s been written in the past few years – and it’s not even expressly about innovation. But it can help you think about all the assumptions you make about society and the environment in which you’re embedded – assumptions that, when relaxed, can open up new ways of thinking that will help you more effectively innovate.

Here’s the review that I’ll be publishing in the January 2014 issue of the Quality Management Journal. In the meantime, I encourage you to read Jean’s book — and please share your comments below! I want to know what you think about it.

               “Thrivability,” or the “ability to thrive,” suggests strength, grace, health, growth, and sustainable value creation – all in one word. In this book, Jean Russell articulates over 20 years of knowledge and insights she’s gleaned from delving into this one concept from the perspective of multiple disciplines. The end result is a book that is unique, richly textured, and achieves its stated goal: “to equip you with tools to see and act in ways that enrich your life, your community, your business, and our world.” As a result, this book contributes indirectly (yet profoundly) to the expanding body of knowledge on innovation.

               The book is structured in three Parts: Perceiving, Understanding, and Doing.  The first chapters encourage the reader to critically examine his or her external environment, the assumptions that are inherent to the economic and political systems within which we are embedded, and the individual stories that we use to construct our expectations about ourselves, our capabilities, and others around us. It does this by emphasizing the importance of storytelling and narrative – to imagine ourselves in the context of a story that inspires us about our world, rather than fills us with fear. To be successful at this, we must first learn how to look at our world and the people around us with compassion and acceptance. This, according to the author, will help us generate new perspectives on existing situations, and open us to new possibilities for improvement.

               Part II, on Understanding, explores how we can shift our beliefs to help create more positive, productive, connected environments and organizations. A large part of this section reflects on the psychological influences of social media and how this is changing the ways we identify opportunities and even the definition of “success” itself. For example, in education, grades are losing their significance as society recognizes that complex creations are more effective measures of accomplishment than passing tests. Part III, on Doing, focuses on tools and techniques to enliven creativity, enhance trust, and break through limiting beliefs and blocking situations.

               This book has essential insights for both academics and practitioners in quality-related fields. Most significantly, Russell’s work can help us envision the new world in which we might soon find ourselves, where the search for meaning and compassion for others (and our environment) take precedence over profit and capturing or creating new markets.

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