Thursday, December 11, 2014

Audience? What's that then?

This is a post I've had as a draft since last year and never published. It seems quite a good moment to post it now as I'm in the same place again teaching-wise, not to mention being too immersed in work to write a new one. 

Just in case any of you don't know this by now, I'm a teacher. It's how I make my living and it's the day job I'm not about to give up because truth to tell, I really enjoy it. I know, I know. I moan and groan about having to work, but the rewards of really helping my students achieve something they've previously been unable to do is verging on addictive. Oh did I mention that my subject is writing? In English. Surprised? No, well, maybe not.

Sometimes I teach oral English skills. I'm doing that now with two groups of first year International Business students. They are a delight, but as yet, they haven't grasped the fact that seventy percent of their oral communication is about non-oral communication and reaching out to their listeners or audience needs more than mere words.

Like most teenagers, they think that surly and sulky looks lean and mean. They'll learn in time that a smile will leapfrog the inch and carry them a mile. They'll also learn that while accuracy in spoken language is admirable, it's something few people - even native speakers - achieve, so it's not the most important consideration.

Mostly, though, I teach writing skills to Master's students, Phd'ers and administrative staff, and I love that. I feel that accuracy and variety of language are much more important in the written than in the spoken word - not that I count myself as any kind of expert, especially as I'm nowhere in the PhD'ers league. But what I can help them to understand is the importance of knowing that whatever they write is largely determined by the expectations of those reading it. It's also about the craftsmanship of putting ideas, thoughts and opinions into textual form in a way that exactly suits the reader - or as we like to call it, the audience.

As a writing teacher, I've become very aware that this aspect is often ignored but incredibly important. I show my students models to demonstrate the difference between an academic text, a narrative text and a business text - how to say essentially the same thing for three different readers. It amazes them, and to be honest, it still amazes me too. I love the fact that we can re-shape, re-structure and re-package our language in this way and for me, this is one of the major delights of the written word.

So which style do I like best? That's hard to say. One of the most appreciative audiences I've ever had consisted of the management of the health insurance company where I worked for ten years in South Africa. It was my job to write the 'visit reports' - accounts of meetings with member firms I'd been to see as part of my job as assistant marketing manager. In theory, these should have been dry factual accounts, but I enjoyed adding my own take to the reports; brief descriptions of the people I'd met, the offices they worked in or the other employees in the firms, so in truth they were more like short articles or interviews than minutes of meetings. That said, if the managers hadn't told me they looked forward to reading my weekly write-ups, or if they'd criticised my style, I'm sure I'd have changed it, but my audience was receptive and so I carried on.

This brings me to the point that isn't really much of a point. I'm just rambling really. But the point is (yes?) it doesn't matter so much what you write as long as you write it right for the right types. So that's it. The audience is what matters, and in a language generally regarded as being 'writer responsible', it's our task to keep our readers happy by writing in a style they expect and like for the content they've chosen to read.

Sounds easy doesn't it? Well luckily for the teacher me it isn't, because if it were, I'd be out of a job. For the writer me, well that's another story. I wish it were just a bit easier to find the right audience…but I'll keep trying.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

My fourteenth Christmas

This year's harbour lights
My first Christmas in the Oude Haven was at the end of 2001, so this is my fourteenth end of year festive season as the proud caretaker of my lovely Vereeniging. Every year, the winter seems to change. Some are just plain cold, but not enough to stop us having the occasional spuddle. The photo below is one from December 2008, when my daughter and I decided to go for a row with a broom and a homemade paddle (we really did - and they worked perfectly!). Yesterday, we went for another spuddle, except this time we had a smart electric motor and a battery on my increasingly decrepit little rowing boat. Now you'd think that would be much more efficient, wouldn't you?

Well, the occasion will enter the annals of the ridiculously memorable because we wired the motor up the wrong way so everything was in reverse. I'd done about four pirouettes before my daughter grabbed the tiller and figured out that reverse was forwards and left was right! I did feel an idiot, but in hindsight it must have looked very funny.

The fact that we were trying to tow another rowing boat 'to help out' a poor neighbour who was rowing against the current just made things even funnier. Poor Bas didn't know what we were up to except that we were running rings round him. It was icy cold, but I wish I'd had a camera on me to capture the moment.

Then there are the snowy Christmas seasons. I know everyone seems to think we've not had a proper winter in years, but I have photos to prove otherwise. These three were taken in 2009, one of the prettiest winters we've had with lots of real snow and icicles as well as plenty of sunshine to make it all sparkle. Children playing ice hockey on the canals made a beautiful scene and everything was frozen solid.

This one below was, I think, earlier, but I don't know exactly when. The trees on the quayside have been gone for years, so I suspect it was back in 2005 or 2006. My photos are not always dated very well as the cameras were not set to the right date and time on occasions. Needless to say, this was a very snowy winter in the Oude Haven.

Last winter was unusual in that we had no snow, no frost and everything remained growing, even my annual primulas, begonias and geraniums. They all survived to flower again this spring. This last week, though, we had the coldest days since the winter of 2012/2013 so maybe things will be back to normal again. Much as I hate the cold, I think it's probably a good thing. The earth and the land need the ice and frost to kill the bugs, and snow gives lots of good things to the ground, but even still, I'd prefer not to have too much of the white stuff. Give me freezing temps with sparkling sun rather than this kind of whitout.

That aside, Christmas in the harbour is lovely as many of the barges put up lights in their rigging. This year, lighting up evening will be next Friday, so here's a taste of what's to come. I know I've shown this one before, but I love the atmosphere. This was Christmas 2006.

I'll be keeping my head in my books over the next few weeks, so I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a lovely holiday wherever you're going or what you're doing. May it be peaceful and joyous whatever your persuasion. I won't sign off completely as I might post again, but for now…

Happy holidays and blessings to those who value the season's spiritual message XX

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Being a public presence in private (or vice versa)

I keep reading things about privacy on the Internet and how to keep it. Friends are posting statements on Facebook about what they do and don't permit the social media giant to make use of. It makes a lot of sense, I know, but for me I think it's really too late. Actually, it's always been too late. The thing is, ever since I bought my barge in 2001, it (the Vereeniging) has been an object of curiosity around the world and has consequently graced the world wibe web in a variety of forms ever since. You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? Well, let me explain.

Firstly, the interest was local. When we brought the Vereeniging back to Rotterdam from the town of Grave in the east of the country where I bought it, the man who helped us wrote an article about my engine and posted it on an internet site about traditional Dutch marine engines. In it, he named my barge and me, so before I even had a blog or any other presence on the net, there I was. The web had me entrapped before I could even do anything about it.

Alas, I can no longer find the page, but here is the engine in question in full swing.

Industrie single cylinder engine

It was then some years before I decided to start this blog. However, during this time, my barge was the subject of many a tourist's photo, an artist's painting and a historian's interest. Many of these have somehow found their way onto the internet, and in the case of history articles, my name has been mentioned too as the Vereeniging's owner. What's more, if you look on the photo website, Flickr, and put Oude Haven into its search field, there we will be several photos that include the Vereeniging in them somewhere. Then there are the artists who decorate the quayside, drawing and painting as if no one has ever done this before. Bless them. They post these pictures on the Internet to garner public interest in what they do - hardly surprising, as our harbour is very picturesque.

Here is a water colour painting of the harbour that I happened to come across and is one of many that is floating around our world wide web. See the Vereeniging on the far right. I don't know who painted it, but I really like it.

Water colour painting - artist not known

Apart from this, if anyone cares to type my name into Google, they will find several pages of entries about my books and my blog. Since both have been around since 2006, this means any attempt at anonymity is likely to be slightly useless. So what do I do? I'm on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. What chance do I have when my professional and personal life are liberally plastered over the walls of the web?

Well, the answer is not very much. But I think the point is that I have a museum exhibit of a barge, so it's natural that it will be the subject of fairly wide interest. Added to that, I have written two memoirs about my experiences with my Vereeniging, and both of these are available to whoever cares to read them.
The Vereeniging in 2001
As regards my private life, well, surprising though it might seem, that is still very private. I rarely say anything about my daily life, my work, my family or my relationships on the Internet, or even in my books. I write about my barge and the life I experience around me. That's it. It's kind of like hiding in plain sight, and for me it works. I sometimes cringe at the number of entries I can find referring to me in the search engines, but for all that, I'd challenge anyone to know what I have actually been doing and where I've been today. I only ever publish what it suits me to do so. The rest remains between me and my family and friends.

It's taken some practice, but I think I've nailed being a public presence in private quite well. My barge has taught me that. So, designers and programmers of Facebook, Google and any other sites out there, do what you will, try as you might - you'll only find out what I choose to tell you!