Original Source Research

“He who can go to the fountain
does not go to the water-jar.”

                                                           —Leonardo da Vinci

I have more respect for Leonardo than for any other curious human I’ve ever heard of. He may have been the most restless investigator of all. Kenneth Clark called him “the most relentlessly curious man in history.” He was also weird, surpassingly weird, in his interests, which were as wide and unexpected as the limits of imagination.

His notebooks were filled with observations, math equations, drawings of sawed-open skulls, of severed arteries, of water eddies, of explosions and flying machines, full also of to-do lists that chronicle his boundless curiosity. Walter Isaacson collected some samples from one day’s entry:

Measure Milan and its suburbs.
Get the master of arithmetic to show you
how to square a triangle.
Ask Giannino the Bombardier
about how the tower of Ferrara is walled.
Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.
Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means
they walk on ice in Flanders.
Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to
repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner.
Go every Saturday to the hot bath where
you will see naked men.
Observe the goose’s foot; if it were always open
or always closed the creature would not be able
to make any kind of movement.
Draw Milan.
Get the measurement of the sun promised me by
Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.”

What I hope you’ll notice and find inspiring is that Leonardo took nothing for granted, cultivated sources that would provide him the information he sought, and prized most of all his own observations or the direct testimony of other keen observers.

Leonardo Water
from Leonardo’s notebook

He went to the fountain,
not to the water-jar.

When Google leads you to a magazine article that says, “The study concluded that the earth is not actually getting warmer,” you’re drinking from the water-jar. You can either trust Coalminer Times, or you can be like Leonardo. Follow the lead back to the fountain. Find the study that did the testing and tracked the temperatures and drew the conclusions. See for yourself what conclusions they drew.

Are they the same conclusions Coalminer Times reported them to be? Who conducted the study? Who financed it? Was it someone interested in tracking the earth’s temperature? Or was it someone interested in promoting coal?

If the study turns out to be a collection of other people’s opinions, you’ve found the tank from which the jars were filled. Keep looking. The world is full of water tanks and water jars tainted with water from suspect sources. And very few fountains.


Isaacson, W. (2018). Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.


Riddles About Riddles

Just one last word before I go.

I wrote these jokes to make a point.

Version 1
—Knock knock.
—Who’s there?
—Death who?

Version 2
—Knock knock.
—Who’s there?
Death who?
—Ultimately, it makes little difference in what form death arrives or by what name we call it. We all go one way or another and while there may be more dignity in some manners of demise, more time to prepare, or less suffering, the ultimate destination couldn’t be more similar: gone and gone and gone forever.

For me, they’re both funny (for you, maybe neither), but for different reasons. Version 1 is funny because it’s quick to point out a universal absurdity. Version 2 is funny because it gets the tone of a knock-knock joke so spectacularly wrong.

In Version 1 we laugh at ourselves for caring what kind of death is knocking. In Version 2 we laugh at the form the joke takes. I think that makes Version 2 a meta-joke, a joke about jokiness.

But that wasn’t my point.

My point was there is usually a way to say what you mean that is perfectly appropriate to your intentions, sometimes more than one, but always many, many, many, many, many ways to get the tone all wrong and spoil the effect you were going for, usually by falling for ready-made language or by overwriting what could be written simply.

My point is that when the chicken crosses the road “to get to the other side,” we laugh at the well-made joke. We laugh at how badly the joke gets it wrong when the chicken crosses the road “to find itself in sudden and much-valued possession of some other-sidedness.”

Which sort of jokes are you writing (Version 1 or Version 2)?

Which sort of jokes are these?:

—How many licensed electricians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
—Just one.

—How can you tell the difference between an oral thermometer and a rectal thermometer?
—The taste.

Exercise for the Leave a Reply fields below:
Write a joke that gets the tone so wrong that it either dies on the spot or is funny precisely because it upends our expectations.

And if you can’t do that in the time available, just share a good (or amusingly bad) joke.

Stephen Hawking Was Wrong.

I shared this post with you today in class before I found this perfect expression of why we can always say with confidence that “the scientist was wrong.”

The opening joke (attributed to Albert Einstein) tells the whole story.

How to Demand Your Readers’ Attention.

This is a post in progress.


Grade Levels 2

Recently I wrote two sentences in preparing a post I never published called  “Counterintuitive Econundrums.” Reading them back, I realize they contain roughly the content value of a paragraph each. They’re not perfect sentences, but their advantages over the paragraphs they represent make them excellent models of writing that earns better grades.

An econundrum—combining the words “ecology” and “conundrum”—is a counterintuitive example of a supposed bit of “green” technology or practice that turns out to be less ecologically friendly than it seems.

Example 1

My favorite econundrums puncture the inflated claims of greenness too often made by commercial operations determined to sell us something they pretend has big environmental advantages.

This sentence packs a lot of material and delivers it in a steady stream that needs no punctuation. Commalessness is not a requirement of good writing, but sentences that charge resolutely toward their conclusion without deviating can gain a lot of momentum and arrive like a freight train. Let’s unpack the sentence into its component claims. Here’s the paragraph the sentence replaces:

Commercial operations are in business to sell us something. Because they know a large percentage of consumers are more likely to buy something that is kind to the environment than a similar but planet-killing product, they promote their products as green. Often they exaggerate the environmental friendliness of their products to trick us into making purchases that don’t really benefit the planet. Econondrums sometimes puncture the inflated claims of the companies that exaggerate their environmental benefits. Those are my favorite econonundrums.

Example 2

Electric cars make me furious, for example, because their manufacturers pretend exhaust pipe emissions are the only measure of a car’s environmental impact, conveniently ignoring the damage done to the planet to produce the electricity in the first place, a huge percentage of which is lost to transmission before it ever starts the car.

The sentence is a little long and might be better phrased, but as it stands it’s certainly not as clumsy at the version it represents, which takes way too much space to spell out the same claims:

Electric car manufacturers claim that their cars cause less environmental damage than cars that burn gasoline. They support that claim by measuring the amount of environmentally-damaging exhaust that gasoline engines emit when they’re driven. While they are correct in saying their cars don’t emit gasses, they are wrong to claim that exhaust gasses are the only way to measure environmental impact. The electricity required to power their cars is not environmentally clean because it can’t be produced in the first place without damaging the planet in some way; what’s more, a huge percentage of the electricity generated at power plants is lost in the miles of transmission wires from the plant to the charging station before it ever gets into the car. Therefore, claims that electric cars are cleaner than gasoline engine vehicles make me furious.

I invite you to respond here if this is helpful, or if you feel the need for additional samples, better models, or even revised versions of your own paragraphs before or after you’ve posted them. If I can model better writing for you, I’ll be happy to try.

Visual Rewrite Advice

Draft Version of First Second

0:00-0:01 Ad opens on a porcelain tea-kettle in the shape of a cat’s head, mostly white but with blue on the outside of the head, brush strokes made to look like hair and small blue flowers on the spout and top of the kettle. The cat’s eyes have been given a more human look, seemingly looking up at its’s holder as if to say my contents are good. It has a small, round pink nose and thin pink lips. The cat is being held buy well manicured handsthe holder must have just left the nail salon. The background is distorted as to not distract us from the kettle cat. But you can make out a possible shelf with other small items. The overall image is bright and clean.

Revision Advice

[I’ve highlighted some grammar and punctuation problems, Username.]

That’s a beautiful description of an opening image, Username. I wonder now what you conclude from looking at it. The trick of the Visual Rhetoric is two-fold. 1) Describe the Visual; 2) Explain the Rhetoric.

That tea-kettle is SOMEBODY’S taste. Perhaps not yours or mine.

  • To admirers, it’s a find.
  • To the vast majority of viewers, it’s an object of amusement at best, scorn at worst.

We don’t want to judge the person who is lovingly handling it, but we do wonder what they could possibly find desirable about it. Does any of that cross your mind when you watch the first second?

SOMETHING crossed your mind. Whatever that SOMETHING is that presented itself to your consciousness IS THE RHETORICAL VALUE of the image.

  • Is this a thrift store item?
  • Is the admirer trying to save money on housewares?
  • Or is it an antique item that might be worth thousands of dollars (not more desirable per se, perhaps, but maybe a good investment).

Those newly-manicured nails.

  • Do they say: “I shop at thrift stores so I can afford expensive manicures”?
  • Or do they say: “I can afford both expensive manicures and costly antiques”?
  • Or do they say: “I do my own nails so I can afford to shop wherever I want”?

The odds are pretty good this is not an ad for kitty-kettles, so there’s something other than a commercial message being delivered in this first second.

The director did EVERYTHING for a reason. Why did she make these first-second choices?

Please comment below if you now understand the two components of the Visual Rhetoric Task.

  1. Visual
  2. Rhetoric

Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass

  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you present.

Half Glass

  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have used the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.


Find the useless sentence.

Though these sentences are contradictory and entirely fictional, each serves a rhetorical purpose. Find the useless sentence and pledge to purge any like it from your work.

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.


Argument and Rhetoric are inseparable

Despite my pretense that they can be graded as separate categories, Argument and Rhetoric are as inseparable as fist and fingers. Just as I can’t describe a fist without speaking of tightly curled fingers, I can’t describe Rhetoric without explaining how it persuades readers to accept an argument. Even so, I try to grade the fingers and the fist.

The Style Aspect of Rhetoric

Example 1

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

[When read aloud, the following paragraph sounds like mostly comprehensible conversational speech, but viewed on paper, it is peppered with grammar trouble and peculiar phrasing that make comprehension very difficult.]

The NPR broadcast was very interesting and what surprised me is how the claims were accurately correct in my opinion. I would have never thought of how money can change so drastically in time. In the past, we were exposed to using gold as a currency, then to paper bills and now an electronic transaction. In today’s world, society does claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, but at the same time we already progressed, using digital cash. A prime example, paying bills, in which society pays bills using a computer and that consist only information it’s seems surprising to know now how easily any amount of a transaction can be paid off or transferred. There is no physical money being involved. The closest idea that I can think of using paper would be is sending checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

[The highlights indicate every phrase that needs to be corrected. Red and purple are not particularly significant, but two colors are needed to call out individual phrases.]

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

The NPR broadcast was very interesting, and what surprised me was that the claims were correct in my opinion. I never realized that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have already progressed to digital cash. We pay our bills by computer; those transactions consist of information only. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any money being involved. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. I was surprised to learn that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions, each time using a more abstract version of barter. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have mostly eliminated those last physical objects in favor or digital cash. We pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any paper or metal currency at all. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s increasingly rare.

Rhetorically Effective Arguments prove more complex theses.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. It illustrated that money, already an abstraction, has grown increasingly more abstract, as have our lives in general. Before money, we traded cows for corn, but transactions were limited to what one trader had that another trader wanted. With the advent of gold as a currency, trade flourished because the gold could represent cows or corn or any other valuable commodity. It was an abstraction, a symbol of needs fulfilled. Next paper bills, with no inherent value, represented gold. Now electronic entries in a bank branch database represent dollars, each step more abstract than the previous. Today, we don’t trade, use gold, or for the most part use currency: we pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical at all. Like the work we do (which increasingly is not physical labor but mental exertion) it’s no coincidence that our cows are also now abstractions. The closest we get to the animal is the shrink-wrapped meat ground and extruded so that it no longer looks like anything that lived.

Example 2

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

Money, money, money. The extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how did a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images become the social fabric of our world? When you put a U.S dollar bill side by side to monopoly money you understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t. Although, monopoly money like “real” money is simply paper from our trees. Therefore, we must question, why is money valuable? Pre Colonial era we traded among each other valuables in which each person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamond, gold and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colony needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow he would search for that person that needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill and a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in its self has no real value to it, it isn’t rare and its not pretty. We the people make money valuable, we make the value “real”, but should we?

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

Money, money, money: it’s the extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images became the social fabric of our world. Even a child who puts a U.S dollar bill side by side to Monopoly money can understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t, even though “real” money—like Monopoly money—is simply paper from our trees. Is it because one is issued by the US government and the other by the Parker Brothers Company that makes one of them valuable? In pre-colonial times, we traded among each other valuables which every person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamonds, gold, and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colonist needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill or a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in itself has no real value to it; it isn’t rare, and it’s not pretty. We the people make money valuable. We make the value “real”; but should we?

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

Despite its importance to all our lives, we have to admit money is a fiction. Children are right to wonder how pieces of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images run our world. They know but can’t grasp why one dollar bill can be traded for candy at the corner store while the other is worth nothing, except in Monopoly. What they do understand is that the houses in Monopoly aren’t real, but the money doesn’t seem so different from the bills we use for groceries. 

In our early history, we traded valuable things directly. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who had a cow and needed a pig. This exchange of goods made perfect sense but was clumsy and sometimes impossible to manage. Substituting precious and rare metals or jewels for cows and pigs, we were able to trade with everyone, whether they had cows or not. Money in itself has no real value to it, but we agree to make it valuable for convenience. While it no longer represents gold, the money we use today has value only because it is issued by the US government and not the Parker Brothers Corporation.

The Argument Value of Rhetoric

Rhetoric Can Reveal or Hide Arguments

The fact that there is a giant ball of limestone sitting in the middle of the ocean somewhere still being claimed by someone who is deceased is unsettling to me. That is like me having 500 dollars and throwing it in the ocean. When the money washes up onto shore and someone picks it up, it would now be theirs. Nobody can just go pick up the giant ball of limestone and claim it.

This paragraph may contain a valid argument, but the language obscures it. The analogy misses the point of the story of the sunken fei. Nobody will ever retrieve that “money,” but its physical presence or absence is of no longer of consequence to its owner.

Let’s try a different analogy for the limestone disc at the bottom of the ocean. Donald Trump has created a value for his name. Unlike banks that pay huge naming fees to have NFL stadiums named for them, Trump can get developers to pay him millions to attach his name to a project. His name is not an object like the sunken fei. Its insubstantiality doesn’t matter at all. And neither could anybody steal it and be richer. If he’s a billionaire, it’s because he can sell his name for a billion dollars whenever he wants to.

Brevity and Clarity

Don’t Give Readers Time to Disagree

A first draft may contain many capable sentences that make reasonable individual points, but if they don’t transition well from one idea to the next, and if the goal of the argument is not identified in advance, readers are free to follow any path that distracts them and never arrive at the summit you want to guide them to.

1. The value of money is the mental reassurance of wealth.
2. One might question what mental reassurance of wealth has to do with money.
3. Simply it is the way we track value.
4. We are reassured that the money we have can purchase a curtain amount of things.
5. We place a value on money to keep track of things it can purchase.
6. The psychological or economic value of money may change with currency variations, but the money will always be worth something.
7. Over time, America’s relationship with the value of the dollar has evolved.
8. In the early 20th century, it granted a request from the French to convert their dollar assets into gold.
9. Granting that request gave the impression that the US dollar was weak.
10. The French believed that their money was worth more than the U.S. dollar.
11. The French wanted something they thought was worth having, so they asked for gold.
12. Even though the gold was worth no more than the equivalent value in US dollars, the French were not convinced that the dollars were “worth their weight in gold.”

First, combine the sentences for better effectiveness.
[1-6] Money reassures us of our economic wealth. While the volume of goods and services it can buy will change from time to time, knowing that we have enough to meet our needs is reassuring.

Then, provide the needed transition between the sections.
But even money can vary in value compared to other currencies.

Then, combine the conclusion sentences.
[7-12] When the French began to doubt the stability of the value of American dollars, they demanded the US convert their dollar holdings into gold.

Most of your individual claims can be made in a word or two so that the sentences provide their own internal transitions.

Sufficient Scholarship

Example 1

Over-reliance on Personal Perspective

So what makes these pieces of paper we call dollars have value? well because people in society decided to make it have value. This method of currency was created to make the trade of goods easier and faster to manage. After reading “The Island Of Stone Money” one can notice that the inhabitants of Uap had a similar system to the one we use today. Today technology has advanced so much that we can now digitally manage, distribute and hold our money through mobile apps and online websites. whether one prefers using credit cards, Pay Pal or bank apps a physical dollar is a place holder for that digital number on any of those digital outlets. Now comparing Uap’s method to our current method the people of Uap used the stones as their physical placeholder to replace their word. Essentially creating a word for product system. Whilst currently people are using a pixel for product system.

Rhetoric and Scholarship are inseparable in your case, MyStudent. You’re trying to thrive on observation and speculation alone, without bringing any evidence or support from the rich material at your disposal. You cite only the Yap, and you do so in a way that assumes your readers are all familiar with Milton Friedman’s article. They’re not. They haven’t listened to the NPR podcast. They have no idea what you’re talking about. They know only what you tell them. So tell them what you learned and help them understand.


Why the Challenger Exploded

Why Challenger Exploded

In January, 1986, the solid booster rockets that were to launch NASA’s space shuttle Challenger into orbit suffered a catastrophic failure 73 seconds into the launch. All seven crew were killed in the disaster, most likely from the impact of their cabin striking the ocean below. The weather in Florida was very cold; ice had formed on the launch pad overnight, but the launch proceeded despite the known risk of low ambient temperatures, partly because of public interest in this particular launch. For the first time, a non-astronaut—”ordinary citizen” Christa McAuliffe—was a member of a shuttle crew. The nation was riveted.

The launch, most uncommonly, was broadcast live on TV. Millions of schoolkids watched as the events unfolded, including McAuliffe’s students, gathered in their classroom to celebrate their teacher’s accomplishment. For 72 seconds, they were jubilant, but then an explosion separated the boosters from the shuttle and the launch catastrophically failed.

The Common Explanation

The immediate cause of the explosion was the failure of O-Rings to contain the immense pressure of combustion within the rocket.

The complicated issue of causation

The answer to the question “Why did the Challenger Fail?” or its corollary question, “Why did Christa McAuliffe die?” is complicated, since no single cause can be isolated.

Several causes can be named, some distant, some immediate, some precipitating.
Among them:

  • The O-rings failed
  • The design required a warm ambient temperature at launch
  • NASA ignored warnings that the weather was too cold
  • The decision to send a civilian to space created pressure to launch
  • NASA was emboldened by the program’s success to take an unprecedented risk

A most unlikely explanation

One explanation very rarely heard is that the Challenger failed because of the way Romans decided to build their horse-drawn carts when Rome ruled most of the known world and could establish a global standard.


Roman war chariots were built with wheels spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart. The apparently arbitrary width was determined to be the width of two war horses’ rear ends yoked side by side to the chariot. The standard assured that horses would not pull a too-wide wagon through any opening wide enough only for them.

Before long, the much traveled and justly famous Roman roads developed deep grooves at the established separation, discouraging any other wheel spacings.

As England was part of the Roman Empire, English carts came to adopt the Roman standard to take advantage of the path of least resistance established by the ruts carved by Roman chariots.

Golden Chariot

When railroads first began to replace horse-drawn carts as the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys, the same cartwrights using the same patterns and tools as they used for carts, passed on the standard wheel spacing with which they were already familiar. By 1850, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch spacing had become known as the “standard guage” for railroad cars throughout the British Empire, including India, where the connection between Chariots and Railroads is obvious in the photo above.

Early railroads in America naturally adopted the odd but increasingly accepted English “standard gauge” as well. As more track was laid in England and America, deviation from the standard was a costly and foolish error for any investor in a new train line.

Train Tunnel

Tunnels were carved through mountains no wider than necessary to accommodate two trains passing one another, which limited not only the width but also the height of the cars or their cargo. The width of two Roman warhorse rear ends had come to dominate the widths of roads, then rails, then railcars, then tunnels, then what could be hauled in one piece by train through the mountains.

Solid Boosters

The solid rocket boosters that propelled many successful shuttle launches into space are enormous structures, as you can see by comparing them to the trucks following the shuttle conveyor to the launch pad.

When NASA awarded the contract for the design and construction of those boosters to the Morton-Thiokol Corporation of Utah, the die was cast for catastrophe. The boosters could have been built as a solid single piece, but those segments would never have made it through the tunnels they would have to have traversed through the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, they were built in sections, shipped in pieces, assembled in Florida, and wrapped by the now-infamous rubber O-Rings that failed so catastrophically on the day of the Challenger disaster.

Why did Christa McAuliffe die? Because of the width of a horse’s ass.


Tonight’s Specials

Something from the bar?

This has to be the lamest question ever uttered, and it’s uttered a million times a day in restaurants all over the world.

It might elicit an actual drink order from a customer who always wants the same refreshment before dinner, and for whom price is no object, but for everyone else it causes hesitation, confusion, reluctance, panic.

We don’t know what you have, how it’s priced, whether your bartender is frugal or licentious, which of the countless ways you might want to take advantage of us is in play . . . .

In other words, it creates an environment precisely the opposite of what the server intended, which was to make the customer comfortable, appreciated, and catered to (in a word, spendy).

Get it? 🙂

Here’s what your customer at Table 13 visualizes when you attack her with your demand that she order a drink:


It’s no wonder that, when you make her select from this ridiculous array of alternatives—on a strict social deadline!—she panics in the moment and says the only safe thing: “I’ll stick with water.”

And you wonder why you don’t get bigger tips!

Hint to the metaphor: Readers do the same thing. Faced with too much new data or too many choices—in absence of clear guidance—they retreat to their bunkers where you can’t begin to persuade them.

How to Serve

You don’t understand your job, which is to serve, and by serving to guide, and by guiding to sell, and by selling to improve your employer’s bottom line, and—by helping out absolutely everybody—to take home bigger tips from happier customers whose enjoyment has been lubricated by expensive cocktails.

The best servers use their power to their advantage.

And when I say “servers” I mean “writers.” You understand this is an extended metaphor, right?

  1. They are the subject matter experts
  2. They have already examined the pertinent evidence
  3. They have come to the right conclusions
  4. If they establish your trust, they can guide you to the right conclusions
  5. Everybody is happy when you come to the right conclusions

How to Write

How to serve; how to write; they come down to the same set of rules. Stay in charge of the subject matter; approach it like the expert you are; keep everybody comfortable; say what needs to be said and not another word; guide your reader (diner) to the right conclusion.

One of the images below demonstrates the right way to offer up hors d’oeuvres. The other is the way we write too often without even knowing we’re doing it.

Hors D'oeuvres

Get it? 🙂

NOTHING is accomplished if I tell you “We have a wonderful assortment of delicious hors d’oeuvres; what do you want?”

You think I’ve offered you the universe when in fact I have seven options and a microwave. Instinctively, you know this too, and you’re afraid to order Amazonian beefcheek if I’m not going to recognize it, so you freeze. You don’t know what I have because I haven’t told you.

But if I extend to you a limited sampling of carefully selected delicacies (by which I mean data and evidence because we’re still talking about writing, remember?) and stand there smiling, offering by my benevolent presence to guide you through the options with pleasant but persistent patience, then we pretty much both understand you’re going to order one of these little beauties . . . probably the one on which the house earns the biggest markup.

But whatever you choose, it will be something I have. I’ve made your options completely clear. And I’ve looked you in the eye with confidence. And nothing else seems reasonable.

Get it now? 🙂

It might even be Amazonian beefcheek, which I had all along, and could have sold you if I’d wanted you to choose it.

Lessons from the Server


  1. Don’t ask open-ended questions.
  2. Don’t promise that you’ll have important information to share . . . later.
  3. Don’t blame the kitchen.
  4. Don’t apologize for what you don’t have.
  5. Never contradict your customer’s preferences.


  1. Instead of open questions: We have spectacular cocktails from our certified mixologist (I know. I didn’t know there was such a thing either, but she has the certificate to prove it! 🙂 ) But if you’re not drinking, I have flavored teas, a full line of soft drinks, fresh-roasted coffee hot or cold. I’ll even put a big bottle of sparkling water in a bucket of ice. (But I won’t let you think that “sticking with tap water” is an alternative.)
  2. Instead of saying there are countless options: For big appetites I have a 22-ounce porterhouse; South Jersey magazine raves about our chicken Parmesan; but the best bargain on the menu is the brick oven pizza: 15 bucks and you’ll take half of it home. (If you choose the pizza, I upsell you in two painless moves to the shrimp version at $23.50 and we’re both happy.)
  3. Instead of blaming the kitchen: We’re not used to being so crowded on a Thursday, but the review that came out in the local paper has us really hopping.
  4. Instead of saying the owner forgot to order seafood: There are no good mussels in the market this week after that storm in the Gulf; fortunately, the Maine lobster was unaffected and the 2-pounder is on special.
  5. Instead of arguing about your customer’s favorite cut: A lot of people say that, and I agree, so this is hard for me to say, but the filet mignon actually has less flavor than the rib-eye which benefits from all the marbling. Our chef handles both cuts really well. Want to try something new? (If you do, you’ll help me unload our excess rib-eye. If not, you’ll be choosing the already over-priced filet. Either way we both feel like winners.)

Metaphorical Payoff

Do I really have to do this, or do you get it?

  • THE KITCHEN is NOT the entire world of knowledge. It’s whatever you’ve been able to gather from your research. You’ve had just a few weeks, for crying out loud. It’s everything you could afford, and everything you could keep from spoiling in your limited refrigerator space (your White Paper; your Brain).
  • THE CHEF is you back there working with dull knives and too little butter on the one working burner that isn’t devoted to all your other classes—the ones that really matter to your major! 🙂
  • THE SERVER is also you. Once you graduate, you can hire someone to do the serving for you, but for now, you have to cook and deliver everything to the table.
  • THE CUSTOMER is your reader. He’s an arrogant blowhard, full of opinions about what’s good and what’s bad about food. You have to figure out what he thinks he knows, charm him into questioning where he got that misinformation, and sell him that the Tortellini-Tre-P that he always thought was cruel to animals happens to be an ecological blessing in exactly three ways, which you delineate for him with pleasant and persistent patience.

Waiter Receives Tip

Everybody wins.

You collect the big tip for introducing him to guilt-free sausage. He goes home with his utterly infatuated date who has no idea what she’s in for, and you—with your obvious command of the data—attract the attention of the stunning brunette with the dangling earrings and those magnificent teeth.

For sticklers keeping score: Yes. You win twice. But it cost you a semester and he only had to pay the check. Fair’s fair.

Feedback, please

If this is exactly like the advice you’ve received in every other writing class you’ve taken, I’d love to hear about your earlier experiences.

If, on the other hand, it’s a fresh way to consider the task of crafting an academic essay, well, I’d love to hear that too.