Archive for the ‘Editing’ 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


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

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.

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

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.

Vanishing Periods: a Punctuation Bane or Blessing?

Tuesday, 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

Sunday, 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)

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.

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. 

“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.

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.


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.

Writing Full Circle (OR, How to Mop Up Sloppy Writing)

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

I edited and proofed a corporate newsletter yesterday. All the articles had already made it through one editor’s hands before they reached me. My job was to further vet the material for content, grammar and punctuation. Yesterday I saw something I’m seeing more and more of: sloppy writing. A sentence conveys a general idea, but some of its details are either mishmashed together or omitted, making the meaning unclear—or downright wrong.

One article said a program had an “enhanced screening procedure”—without explaining what was new or different about the procedure.

A discussion about policies and procedures for preventing workplace aggression said this:
“New procedures to support these policies include the creation of an aggression prevention team … and a contract to …”
A team is not a procedure; neither is a contract. A procedure is steps that explain how and when to call upon the team or use the contract. The team and the contract are measures.

The most egregious error was a human interest story about a little girl whose artificial trachea accidentally got dislodged. The story was a real heartstring tugger—with one problem. It said, “her trachea dislodged.” BIG difference between her real trachea and the artificial one. Without the word “artificial” in there, nothing else about the incident (how the device got stuck on a machine, how she stopped breathing, etc.) made any real sense—if the author had thought about it for a couple seconds.

These examples aren’t grammar errors—they’re bigger errors. Errors in content. Not being careful to say what you mean to say. Not making sure the content is both accurate and crystal clear. Content errors obscure meaning like dirt obscures a shiny floor.

How busy or distracted were the authors when they wrote those three stories? Or the editor who first looked at the content? I can’t say. My job was janitorial duty: “cleanup on pages 1 and 3.”

You can learn a lesson from these pitfalls. Avoiding them is simple. Just take a bit of extra time to read over your work and ask yourself:

  • “Did I say what I meant to say?”
  • “Did I include all the facts?”
  • “Did I get the facts straight?”
  • “Will even the lowest-level reader in the audience be able to understand what I wrote—without having to re-read it?”

When you think about it, that’s writing come full circle:

  • In the pre-writing phase, you ask yourself those big-picture questions to help you define your audience and what you need to say.
  • When you edit what you write, you drill down from big chunks of information to smaller chunks: moving around paragraphs, then finessing sentence structure and word choices, proofreading last.
  • But before you say your work is “finished,” loop back to the big-picture questions listed above. Doing so will save you the potential embarrassment of a mop-up job later on.