Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Answer 3 Questions to Captivate Readers

Wednesday, 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

General

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
needs

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

Monday, 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.

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

PLODDERS
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.

PRESUMERS
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.

TECHIES
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

Friday, 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!

There’s no Such Thing as Pre-Editing

Tuesday, 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.

Don’t Ditch that Draft! (yet)

Wednesday, 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.

What’s Up with Adjectives?

Wednesday, 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.

Good Writing isn’t Kismet or Magic

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Former basketball coach Bobby Knight once said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.” (Like he magically became a writer because he’d learned how to print? Not.)

If Knight had ever applied his philosophy of basketball to writing, he’d be on another page.

Why? Because Knight also said, “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.” He also said you need four times more mental toughness than physical toughness to succeed.

Preparation, yes. Mental toughness, yes. Both are indispensable for creating good writing.

But much of the writing I edit is more of a loosely strung mishmash of information rather than a concerted effort borne out of careful preparation. As long as the writer included all the information, it didn’t matter whether the sentences were poorly constructed, hard to follow or just plain wrong—they thought that some magic would make their writing highly readable. 

Examples:
“The institute’s members will be drawn from three universities.”
(I hope the artist is good.)
The author meant to say:
“The institute will include members from three universities.”

“Flash forward nearly 20 years and that little event has ballooned in size, drawing 42,000 men, women and children, as well as 5,000 employees system-wide, and bringing in $2.5 million in 2010 donations.”
Where to start with this one? Shuffle information to make it more cohesive. Here’s one option …
“Fast forward nearly 20 years. That little event has ballooned in size: in 2010, it drew 42,000 participants (including 5,000 employees system-wide), raising $2.5 million in donations.”

See how the second example seems to be a jumble of numbers until it’s reworked? That’s because the original huge sentence doesn’t provide a good hierarchy of information. The reader can’t tell at a glance what is most important to remember. Creating two sentences and enclosing secondary information in parentheses establishes a clear hierarchy. Such small, but important changes can make all the difference in the world for readability.

Writing doesn’t magically happen; fate doesn’t drop good writing into your lap. But, to borrow from William Bernbach, writing can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.

The Top Reason to Proofread

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Some of my previous posts talked about why you should proof your work. There are many good reasons to do so, but the #1 reason is to avoid potential embarrassment and misunderstandings from errors, including those that spellcheck can’t catch. I’ve also talked about how to proofread.

Today an e-mail crossed my desk that underscored this #1 reason. I just had to share it with you:
“To help you out, we have put together a series of four videos that are choke full of usable content that can be deployed immediately.”

Really. I hadn’t thought about eating the videos, but you’re right—I’d probably choke trying.

Of course, the writer meant to say “chock.” But didn’t.

This isn’t an e-mail from a tiny startup company. It’s from a massive, well-respected, nationally known marketing stronghold of a company that’s sold over 20 million books touting their techniques.

 You’d think they’d hire proofreaders.

Maybe they did.

But they got sucker-punched by their copy. They knew what it was supposed to say, so they glossed right over it. They hit “send”—and, boom! Millions of people on their distribution list guffawed the gaff immediately. To avoid such embarrassing moments, read my post, Proofreading Power Punches. It only takes one misstep like this to submarine your credibility.

 Here’s another one:
“Your cooling skills are outstanding.”

If I were in the HVAC business and had just fixed your air conditioner, that might be true. But you’re eating my muffins.

That second sentence was from a dear friend, and obviously I knew what she meant. But you have to laugh at it. Literally hundreds of words in the English languages are only one letter different from each other, and a minor slip—even though the goof is a real word—can generate some really interesting reading. Here are just a few examples:

A coping machine (A good alternative to our department’s Xerox?)
Cath and carry (Not something I’d want to do if I had one)
Cornmeal transplant (No thanks)
Chef of surgery (I hope he can do more than toss salads)
A pier review (Are seagulls on the committee?)
Half-lift of 4 hours (Not good, especially if that’s an antidepressant)
Port tenderloin (Was the pig overfed?)

Your mind can go blank or black; you might titter about a dose, but you really need to titer it; and gravy is never gray in my book.

Bottom line: Avoid such bungles! Proofread your work!

Writing a Statement of Work

Monday, April 25th, 2011

My last post discussed writing instructions. A related topic is writing a statement of work, or SOW. An SOW is a “procedure” in that it describes

  • what work you will do
  • with what people
  • within what time frame
  • using what standards
  • to produce what deliverables

If you aren’t a business owner or freelance writer, you may think you never need to deal with an SOW. But, regardless of your job, if you’re involved in project planning, writing reports or similar work, you intuitively develop statements of work—even if you never articulate them.

Say that you’re told to write a report assessing the pros and cons of instituting barcoded nametags as a security measure at your company. You’ll start thinking of the research you need to do, how long it’ll take you to collect the information, write about it and so on. That’s mentally constructing an SOW.

A written SOW ensures that everyone involved sings off the same page—that all stakeholders have the same expectations of what the final product will be. This serves as a project compass as well as a quality control roadmap.

The SOW includes a list of tasks to be done, such as research, interviews, data collection and policy reviews. It includes details of who manages, reviews and approves the work. If any particular standards, policies, regulations or guidelines need to be followed, those are included as well. For lengthy work, interim and final time frames for deliverables are defined. And, an SOW should always include contingencies—what happens if:

  • the scope of the project changes
  • obstacles arise
  • competing priorities snafu the work
  • the work undergoes more reviews/revisions than anticipated

An SOW fosters common understanding—so that if new people are brought midway into the process, they can ramp up without missing a beat. If you’re a freelancer, then an SOW includes a payment schedule as well (and the document functions as a legal contract).

Some companies, especially government agencies, use SOW templates. The main point is that an SOW can be as simple or detailed as the project demands—and you can apply its reasoning to any size project in your workplace.

For more details, see:

and google “statement of work examples.”

6 Steps to Writing Better Instructions

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

A person asked me recently why it takes her so long to write procedures for her staff. She mentioned that even simple instructions sent via e-mail seemed to take an inordinately long time to write.

Writing instructions, procedures and protocols should take a long time.

Why?

Because you want them to be so foolproof that they’re harder to do wrong than do right.

The same applies for designing any kind of form (paper or online).

To write instructions effectively, follow these six steps. 

1: Ask yourself what your audience already knows and does.
Maybe the answer is “nothing.” Maybe your audience has slipped into bad habits. Or maybe they’re following the current steps correctly, but circumstances require a procedural change. 

2. Ask yourself what your audience NEEDS to know and do.
Is it a new way to track their time? Log on to computers? File paperwork? Create reports? Use a template? Pack crates? Stock shelves? What should the audience be able to do when they follow your instructions? 

3. If instructions already exist, ask yourself what needs to change procedurally and behaviorally.
Do people ignore some of the steps? Do they have an outdated version of the instructions? Were they vague or inaccurate? When they were first introduced, were they reinforced? Are they outdated now?

4. Next, look at the procedure itself. Follow the “3C’s” of “clear, concise and complete” as you write (or rewrite) each step.

  • Clearly indicate the revision date of a rewrite.
  • Make each step truly be one step. Avoid steps with multiple parts to it.
  • Ensure that each step is in the right order.
  • Be precise about your word choices, especially verbs. Precision leaves less room for misinterpretation.
  • Quantify and take the guesswork out of every step. “Wash your hands thoroughly” means something different to everyone. “Wash your hands for one minute using XXX product” means the same thing to everyone.
  • If you need to add contingencies, do so at the end of the procedure. Example: “If your immediate supervisor is not available, then call ____.” People need to know how to do the “vanilla” version before you introduce variables. 

5. Prepare your audience.
Use a variety of ways (e.g., e-mails, meetings) to let people know what’s coming. More importantly, tell them how the procedure can help them (save time, simplify work, and so on).

6. Last, assess the procedure over a suitable time to ensure compliance and consistency among your target audience.

Careful writing and clear communications will yield the desired outcomes for your efforts.