Answer 3 Questions to Captivate Readers

June 13th, 2012

Some people think that rules of writing don’t apply universally to all writing genres. That’s not quite true. While developing a novel does differ from writing a memo—and one of my writing class mantras is “memos aren’t mystery novels”—overall, more commonalities than differences exist.

When you understand that, you’ll be better equipped to tackle multiple writing tasks.

Let’s face it. No one solely writes memos or reports. Even if you write only web content every day, it’s rarely on the same topic or for the same audience.

So, how can you captivate your audience, regardless of the topic or their knowledge of it?

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Then make sure your writing answers three questions:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • Why should I care?
  • What should I do about it?

It’s easier to show this than explain it, so here’s a short example. Note that the topic sounds “technical,” but only some of the target audiences will have any background to understand this from a “technical” point of view. How you present the topic and what you focus on are key. See how those differ by writing genre and target audience.

Topic: new bone marrow transplant procedure to treat secondary cancer arising after treatment of primary cancer

Type of writing

Target Audience

What’s in it for me?

Why should I care?

What should I do about it?

Newsletter   article/web content


I may need
this some day
Know the latest Bookmark/save
Grant   application Review committee

Cull the best of the best research

Emerging clinical application Approve funding
Memo to
OR staff
Surgical team

How can
my team prepare for this

Adapt to/use the latest techniques

Assess resources, information gaps and training needs
Memo to
Risk Management
HR, nursing, quality improvement

Understand patient and physician

Assess treatment,
length-of-stay and discharge policies
Rewrite policies if needed
Report Insurance companies Understand latest treatment options Determine insurability, based on
results to date

Assess: monetary risk w/ coverage, how to process claims, whether to write new policies re. eligibility

Ever hear advertising folks talk about “pain points?” The goal of every ad is to touch a nerve, speaking so deeply to an audience that it moves them to action. That concept isn’t limited to advertising. All audiences want to be able to relate to what they read or hear—they want it to “speak” to them. Figure out how to “speak” to your audience by asking the three questions listed above—and answering them in your writing.

Universal application.

How to Edit 4 Writing Styles

June 11th, 2012

Effective editing produces crystal-clear, highly readable documents that serve their intended goals. Editing requires an eagle eye (and some spidey senses) to spot problems and fix them—a skill that goes way beyond fixing grammar and punctuation problems.

Because editing is a large part of my “bread and butter,” I can spot “writing personalities”—and each personality, or writing style, requires different editing tactics. Here are four common writing styles, the typical problems they pose, and how to fix them.

Problem: Muddy the message with disjoint, tangential or extraneous information
Solution: Sharpen the focus. Delete information that isn’t essential to the main message.

Problem: Take too long to get to the main point
Solution: Decipher the heart of the message and ensure that every part of the discussion points to or supports the main message. Remove redundant (repetitive) verbiage. Trim sentence lengths as needed.

Problem: Think that readers already know as much about the topic as the author does (or will, after reading the author’s work)
Solution: Write to the “lowest common denominator”—that is, the reader who knows the least about the topic. Provide enough detail and explanations to convey a clear message.

Problem: Lose the message in technical terms—or write intimidating-sounding verbiage.
Solution: Know the target audience and their general comprehension level. Minimize use of technical terms when feasible; explain all first usages of terms (including abbreviations) that people might not be familiar with. Replace long, unfamiliar words with shorter, highly understandable equivalents.

Whether you edit your own work or others’, ask yourself what writing personality the author tends toward. It may be a mixture of the ones I described, or it may be one I haven’t included. Either way, effective editing includes recognizing overarching writing tendencies and knowing how to address those tendencies to produce more effective communications.

4 Grant-writing Pitfalls to Avoid

June 8th, 2012

May is always a blur of work for me because it’s when many NIH grant applications are submitted. It’s humbling that researchers entrust me with what often is their life work. Interestingly, I make the same four categories of broad-brushstroke edits in virtually every grant application I work on. I share them with you as pitfalls to avoid. (These apply to any kind of grant writing.)

PITFALL #1: Omitting or providing insufficient background on the research topic
Reviewers are highly knowledgeable, but they can’t be experts in every area that they read about in grant applications. Bring them up to speed by explaining

  • Why this topic is important,
  • What the overarching problem or information gap is,
  • What’s been done to date to solve the problem or close the information gap
  • How [in general] your research proposes to do that

That’s the essence of the Abstract or Introduction.

PITFALL # 2: Not clearly delineating preliminary vs. proposed studies
This is a problem especially with renewal grants. Renewals require writing a “Progress Report” of accomplishments to date, but squibs about preliminary studies can also be included in the “Approach” section, which describes proposed studies. To avoid confusion:

  • Be diligent with verb tenses.
    Show clearly what (1) happened in the past, (2) is ongoing, (3) is planned for the future.
  • Specify whether planned studies will use existing cohorts/methods (e.g., to increase statistical significance) or take a different direction (e.g., go from cell studies to animal models; see if urban results hold true in rural settings, and so on).
  • Minimize discussion of preliminary studies in the “Approach” section—unless it’s necessary for contrast.
  • Refer to the “Progress Report” section as needed—to avoid duplicate verbiage.

PITFALL # 3: Omitting figure titles and numbers within charts, graphs and tables
The online submission process turns a group of grant documents into a single, large PDF. That process can “jostle” the position of figures on a page, wreaking havoc on what goes with what if the source documents for the figures don’t have the figure title and number in them. So, if you have figures two close to each other (e.g., Tables 3 and 4) and they get “split” from their accompanying text, reviewers must re-read the text and tables to try to “marry” the two. That causes readability problems, especially with similar-looking tables containing dense data. Anything that bogs down a review works against you.

PITFALL #4: Sacrificing the story for the science
This is the most fundamental, most important pitfall to avoid. And I devote more editing time to this than any other aspect of a grant. Why? Because everyone needs to tell a convincing, cogent story of why their research is unique, important and worthy of funding. With funding becoming tighter, it’s more important than ever to ensure that reviewers clearly understand your work and its big-picture implications on their first read-through. But researchers are so close to their work and so intent on including the details of its “science” that they often forget to tell why their research is great stuff. I remind them that 200 other grants are sitting on that reviewer’s desk waiting to be read. Telling the story well gets the grant noticed.

If you can avoid these pitfalls with your grant writing, your grant application will shine!

Even Mitt Romney needs a Proofreader

June 6th, 2012

Typos are oh-so-easy to make—and so much harder to catch. Case in point: a gaff in a recent Mitt Romney campaign app went viral when it urged people to stand with Mitt for “A Better Amercia.” OUCH.

NBC Nightly News had a good one recently, too: “The Propsal.” You’d think an organization of that caliber would catch that. Alas, no. Why?

News outlets are striving to survive in an increasingly paperless world. So they’re sending copyeditors out their back door while ushering web designers in their front door. (Expect to see more typos. Not that web designers can’t read, but copyediting isn’t their thing—or their job description.)

The New York Times recently had a tongue-clucking headline, too: “Black, White, and Moron [Mormon] all Over.”

So many words in the English language differ by only one letter or can get screwed up by moving one letter. For example:

  • Steakholders (must need really big forks)
  • Frothcoming (watch for overfilled beer mugs)
  • Monkey/money (monkey laundering?)
  • Contact/contract (contact negotiations–to just hold hands?)
  • Pool/poll
  • Man/mean
  • Brain/bran
  • Dear/dead
  • Native/naïve

You get the picture.

Most people would admit (if pressed) that no one can read something he or she wrote as well as someone else can. But maybe there’s no one around to copyedit or proofread for you—and you have a big presentation, report, or grant application on the line. What do you do?

Learn how to do it yourself.

It’s not rocket science, but it takes some practice and discipline. Most people don’t do it because they don’t know how or where to start. I take the guesswork out of that in my book, Proofread Like a Pro. That may sound like a shameless plug for my book. But, in all my years of writing (and in preparing to write my book), I’ve never seen anyone else actually set forth a SYSTEM for how to do it.

Don’t spend time writing a report, memo, or manuscript and simply hope that it’s OK. No one gets it perfect the first time around. And statistics show that communications riddled with typos and other errors lose credibility. So do the smart thing and work the system: my system—called 3/9/3—in my book.

There’s no Such Thing as Pre-Editing

May 29th, 2012

Last week I got my first request to “pre-edit” a continuing education article. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “The author has written a draft; I need you to tell me if it hangs together,” my customer explained. RED FLAG.

My spidey senses were spot on. The draft was basically a brain dump—not organized, not referenced, not even on track with the topic in spots. I asked if the person had written an outline prior to starting the draft. Yes.

The outline was everything the draft wasn’t—the outline logically led the reader through the steps of selecting, maintaining and using this particular medical device. So what happened?

The author ignored the outline.

He thought he knew his subject so well that he thought he could wing it. He treated the outline as just an academic exercise. And it showed.

My customer wanted my feedback within 24 hours. (See me laughing?)

I explained as kindly as possible that, if the author had followed his outline, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about pre-editing. It’s one thing to edit—or even substantively edit—a decent manuscript draft. But being asked to “pre-edit” means the author blew through his task, hoping someone else would pick up the pieces to magically make them fit together.

That wasn’t my job or my customer’s wish, so I inserted placeholders in his draft where information SHOULD go—based on the outline. I wrote a new introduction to point him in the right direction, corrected some of the most heinous grammar and editorializing problems, and suggested that he needed to make the whole thing hang together better with transitional sentences to “lead” the reader from one concept to the next.

Fortunately, my customer held the author’s toes to the fire and asked him to rewrite the materials per the outline.

Yesterday I got the manuscript back—this time with a request to EDIT it.

I still have a train wreck of a manuscript to work on.

Why? The author didn’t rewrite any content; he just shuffled it as he saw fit. (Like anyone gets it “right” with the first draft. Be real.) Example: under the heading “Reasons to use [this medical device],” there’s no list—or content that could be made into a list. Sigh.

But, hey—that’s why I have a job. And that’s why they call it work.

Vanishing Periods: a Punctuation Bane or Blessing?

November 22nd, 2011

Periods are “terminal punctuation,” mean-ing they signal “stop.”

We all know to put a period at the end of sentence. But the use of periods with abbreviations, acronyms, and other shortened versions of words is in flux.

Acronyms—abbreviations where the first letter of each word “makes” a word that’s pronounced as a word—have not used periods for ages. Examples:

  • NATO
  • OPEC
  • AIDS
  • FAQ
  • ROM
  • PIN

When acronyms linguistically take on the identity of regular words, we don’t even capitalize them any more:

  • laser
  • sonar
  • scuba

But other abbreviations that formerly required periods are increasingly going without. Is that a good or bad thing?

Well, it saves space and time. I’d much rather type “MD” and “USA” than “M.D.” and “U.S.A.”

Corporations and style guides are dropping periods after certain abbreviations called “suspensions”—such as “Dr,” “Mr,” Mrs,” and so on. Because both the first and last letter of the word are present, the trend is to drop the period afterwards. (And, some argue that not having a period after “Dr” distinguishes it from “Dr.” in an address.)

In contrast, Prof. still needs a period because the last part of the word is not there (i.e., it’s abbreviated).

Is that confusing?

It wouldn’t be, if everyone could simply agree on it.

You can see the most glaring examples of this disagreement in style guides. In academia and social science, the APA style guide still insists on periods after most everything. So, you cite an author’s name as “Smith, J. D.” in APA style—but in AMA (medical) style, it’s “Smith JD.”

Not a big deal? It is when you have big strings of author names:
APA style:    Smith, J. D., Johnson, A. M., James R. W., & Evans, D. A.
AMA style:  Smith JD, Johnson AM, James RW, Evans DA.

If it were up to me, we’d ditch APA style and universally adopt AMA style or something similar. It’s succinct, intuitive, easier to read and involves less punctuation. But something that radical might spark a turf war.

Balancing the federal budget may be impossible to agree on, but standardizing the use of periods in abbreviations should be easy.

The Cacophany of Collective Nouns

October 9th, 2011

Why do we have so much trouble with collective nouns? Staff, faculty, herd, group, team, senate, congress, cast, crew, jury, choir, committee, majority, minority … the list goes on.

Collective nouns signal a group of people or things that may act as individuals or one entity. And there’s the rub.

When we want the context to say that this group acts as a single unit, then we use a singular verb in the sentence. (“The committee is in session.”) When we want to say that the individual members of the group do something, we use a plural verb. (“The faculty are presenting at the October oncology symposium.”) Sounds simple, right?

The faculty is/are receiving raises this year.
(Could go either way, depending on the context.)

The crew is/are in charge of maintaining the sails.
(Doesn’t sound right unless you use “is.”)

The team run/runs through six defensive drills during every practice.
(That one is a no-brainer.)

So why does this get murky?

Most of the pizza is/are gone.
(“Are” would sound good in the pizza sentence if we said “Most of the pizzas”—because we’d definitely be talking about more than one pizza. But, “Most of the pizza is gone” is fine grammatically because it considers the pizza order as a whole.)

One-third of all Americans is/are overweight.
“Are” sounds good here because “Americans” comes right before the verb. But “Americans” is the object of a prepositional phrase—not the subject of the sentence. So, is “one-third” singular or plural?) Here’s where common sense must prevail. You can be grammatically correct and still leave readers scratching their heads.

Here’s an example and a “test” you can do to help you determine the right wording and subject-verb agreement:
The fourth of the 10 examples is wrong.        
A fourth of the 10 examples are wrong.

The first sentence specifies that only example #4 is wrong, so that takes a singular verb.
The second sentence means 40% of the examples are wrong.
Note the difference in the articles used in the two sentences (“the” vs. “a”). That can be a signal to tell you whether to use a singular or plural verb.

If it sounds awkward no matter what the grammarians say, then rewrite the sentence.

Some of this confusion stems from the use of the word “one.” “One” can be a noun or an indefinite pronoun—that is, a pronoun that doesn’t refer to a specific person, place or thing. “One” is always singular (makes sense), but when we see it hitched to something like “one-third,” we need to think about what type of verb to use with it.

For the record, other indefinite pronouns give us fits because they function collectively, too. “Everyone” and “everybody” take singular verbs. (“Everybody is at the game.”)

You can alleviate some of this problem by living  in a country other than the U.S. The British use the plural more frequently than we do here in the states. They say, “Parliament are in session,” while we say, “The senate is in session.”

So, bottom line: look at the context of the sentence. Is the group acting as a whole, or are its members acting individually? If it’s not that straightforward, run the “test” I suggested. And, above all else, make your writing readable!

Don’t Ditch that Draft! (yet)

September 14th, 2011

Ever write something that you or your boss deemed so off the mark that you faced a major (if not complete) rewrite?

Before you consign that draft to a nearby trash can or your computer’s recycle bin, WAIT.

Take a step back.

Ask yourself where you veered off course. Let the draft teach you. (Yes, that’s humbling. But necessary.)

Did you write for the right audience?
(One of my customers recently asked me to write a DVD script geared to “clinicians in early stages of training.” When I submitted the draft, she said the script should have been for a general audience. Big difference.)

Did you convey the message you intended?
(This week I edited a continuing education article that described all the theory behind a process but failed to explain the real-world applications. Big oops.)

Did you lead the target audience through your logic by linking thoughts together?
(This is the #1 deficit that I correct in other people’s writing. When you know your subject matter well, you tend to forget that others aren’t in that same boat—and you assume logic, details or conclusions that the reader may not be able to draw unless you lead them to it through your writing. You may need to add explanations or move details around to enable your readers to “connect the dots” the way you want them to.)

Did you drown your message in details?
(This is often the #2 problem I correct when I edit others’ writing. The message is there, but if the readers have to take too much time to tease it out of details they’re wading through, they’ll miss or misinterpret the message.)

Did you give your readers a roadmap of what’s coming next?
(Make sure that you write descriptive, effective heads and subheads. Most people either don’t write enough subheads, or they use ineffective, vague verbiage.)

So, before you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard again, ask yourself those questions. Take notes. Mark up your draft or write a game plan for a new draft—whatever works best for you. Hang onto those notes as a learning tool for future projects. THEN—and only then—start on your new draft. You’ll write more efficiently and effectively. And you’ll likely wow your boss with the improvement.

Fact Checking versus Proofreading

August 26th, 2011

Several people asked me to explain the difference between fact checking versus proofreading and whether they are part of the same process. (Nope.)

First, what is fact checking? It is verification that statistics and other facts stated in the document actually are contained in the reference(s) cited for those items.

Why or when would you need to do fact checking? Any document going before any kind of review board should be fact checked. In the pharmaceutical world, all materials— whether they’re flyers, sales training materials or package inserts—go before a medical-legal department to ensure that the company can back up everything their literature says. On a smaller scale, continuing healthcare education materials undergo similar scrutiny. Other sensitive or highly visible documents in any industry warrant fact checking.

You’d be surprised at how many errors fact checking can uncover. I recently worked on a continuing education course that cited 80 references, and 11% of them contained errors—including citing the wrong journal name/issue date/page numbers. Sometimes statistics in the course didn’t appear in any reference cited. Two URLs were no longer valid. And two references were duplicates of others—but they were cited so differently that proofreading probably wouldn’t have caught the errors.

One can argue that the document’s author is responsible for the references they use. True, but no one is perfect. Occasionally I find that authors misrepresent statistical data presented in the reference—a sign that they’ve read only the journal’s abstract—or cherry-picked a statistic and interpreted it the way they wanted to. That’s like English students reading CliffsNotes of Shakespeare instead of his actual plays.

So how does proofreading mesh with fact checking? I can speak only for myself, but I spot-check references as part of my proofreading services. Which references do I choose to check? Key ones—like those that help “build a case” for supporting a certain opinion, procedure or treatment. Also, anything that gives me an uneasy feeling when I read it in context. (After a while, you develop a sixth sense for such errors.) 

What if you’re “just” writing a report for your department chair or a vice president? Does fact checking matter? Absolutely. Expect to get grilled on your report. If you don’t know what’s in the background material you used in writing your document, you could become an exec’s lunchtime fodder.

What’s Up with Adjectives?

August 10th, 2011

You can identify many adjectives by their endings:

-able achievable, capable
-al functional, logical
-ful beautiful, careful
-ic cubic, rustic
-ical anatomical, classical
-less breathless, groundless
-ous courageous, disastrous

But when do you use -ic versus -ical? Does it make a difference?

Short answer: sometimes.

English loves to trim words to their lowest common denominator. Not surprisingly, -ical increasingly is being lopped in favor of -ic. So you have a numeric advantage (not a numerical advantage). Your grandmother has a rheumatologic disorder (not a rheumatological disorder).

But, in other cases, both forms need to exist because they mean different things. “Biological” is anything that has to do with biology. However, a “biologic” or a “biologic drug” specifies a diagnostic or therapeutic entity made from a living organism or its products. Examples are vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and interleukins.

Ditto for needing to differentiate the terms “historic” and “historical.” A historic era is an influential one in history. “Historical” pertains to events in history, such as in a historical novel, a historical review of pain management treatments, and so on.

Classic cars and classic black dresses embody versatility. But classical music pertains to a certain period in time.

“Economic” relates to that field of study (e.g., economic forecasting). “Economical” depicts money-saving strategies.

The Amazon’s rainy season is a periodic occurrence—it happens at regular intervals. But “periodical” is relegated to the realm of publishing.

Some adjectives don’t have this problem at all. You can understand basic but not basical English; you can be dramatic but not dramatical. We are patriotic but not patriotical.

Finally, just to stir the pot, is the head-scratcher of “anatomical” versus “anatomic.” In med-speak, “anatomical” is still preferred—simply because it’s preferred.

So, bottom line: know your target audience, and look up the words if you’re not sure. You’ll avoid ending up with “ic” all over your face.