Good Writing isn’t Kismet or Magic

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

Examples:
1)
One article said a program had an “enhanced screening procedure”—without explaining what was new or different about the procedure.

2)
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.

3)
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.

4 Reasons to Insist on Proofreading Final Changes

January 13th, 2011

Typical scenario: client asks your help in editing a manuscript or report. Client likes your edits and asks you to proof the final copy before submission. Client runs behind schedule. Client submits document without your proofing expertise. What could go wrong? Plenty.

“Plenty” happened to me twice last month.

In the first instance, language issues were involved. The main author was a non-native speaker of English.

While language hiccups would make a journal editor think twice about sending a manuscript to peer review, the second instance had even more dramatic implications.

The second manuscript hit a snag when a drug manufacturer published unfavorable interim results of a clinical trial after I had finished working on another client’s manuscript. We aborted the submission process to wait for word on whether the company would continue the trial. When the drug company said it likely would suspend all trials on this drug, it was a big blow to my client—who had invested years of time in the drug’s late-stage testing.

I asked my client if I should amend the manuscript or if he would prefer to. He e-mailed me a paragraph to insert—and it raised red flags all over the place for me.

That brings me to the four reasons why you should insist on proofing final documents, even if the client’s last round of changes is “minor:”

  • The tone may be inconsistent with the rest of the document.
    That’s what happened with my client who got the bad news. His tone reflected his disappointment. But the tone needed to stay objective, underscoring the merits of what came before, despite the drug’s uncertain future.
  • The language may be inconsistent with the rest of the document (e.g., native vs. non-native English).
  • The changes can contain grammar, punctuation, and spelling errorsespecially if they were written in haste (which often happens in the 11th hour).
  • If the submission is to a journal, some of the changes may contradict submission requirements. Most authors ignore the requirements set forth in journals’ style guides. They leave those details to people like me. 

So, tread lightly but give objective reasons why you should cast your eyes one more time on something your client deems “finished.” They’ll thank you for it after the fact!

4 Reasons to Proofread your E-mails

January 8th, 2011

I subscribe to a medical writing listserve, and yesterday a person new to the group posed what appeared to be an extremely basic question: what is the difference between an outline and an abstract? The essence of the first response was, “If you knew anything about medical writing, you should already know the answer to that.” Implication: how dare you call yourself a medical writer and try to compete with us professionals for work.

A firestorm of responses followed that one: some chastised the responder for rudeness, others backed that response, others offered actual answers to the question, still others questioned whether people like the poster should have equal status with “real” medical writers in this organization. (Ooh, entitlement.)

Wow.

What happened?

The first person to respond didn’t take the time to really read the e-mail.

Otherwise, the responder would have noticed 1) the careful but stilted English usage and 2) the obviously Asian name of the poster. That should have been sufficient reason to discern that cultural issues were involved. There ARE differences in medical journals as well as meanings/uses of words like “outline” and “abstract” in other countries. 

If the first responder had engaged their brain for a minute before hitting “send,” they also would have realized that the person posing the question made no claim to be an established medical writer.

The ensuing [heated] discussion uncovered those facts, as well as the need to maintain professionalism and withhold judgment in responses.

Besides the need to engage one’s brain before typing anything, this scenario underscores four reasons why you should proofread your e-mails before sending them:

  1. Ask, “who is my audience?” What do they know about this subject? Maybe nothing. Craft your e-mail accordingly.
  2. Watch your tone as you write. E-mails can come across harsher than intended because recipients can’t discern word inflections. Be more sensitive than usual in what you write and how you write it.
  3. Proof your e-mail for punctuation and grammar. It’s disastrous to tout yourself as an authority on something and then ruin that image with silly errors.
  4. Finally, ask yourself if the e-mail does what you intend it to do: persuade, inform, request a response. If not, then rewrite it.

That may sound like a lot of effort for “just” an e-mail, but it takes only a minute—and it can keep you out of hot water.

8 Tips to Keep Writing when You are Ill (or just not motivated)

December 21st, 2010

We all have days where illness stops us in our tracks. But how do you keep writing when you’re sick (even if you write from home)?

I recently weathered a serious illness that threatened my livelihood. Because I write full-time and don’t get paid if I don’t write, I had to find ways to keep going. The strategies I used can help you whether you are ill or simply need to overcome inertia or lack of motivation. 

 1. As far as possible, take on work that is easier for you to do—subjects you’re familiar with or have done before (e.g., editing or proofreading).

2. Do shorter projects; they’re less taxing.

3. Instead of creating rigid outlines for writing projects, do mind maps. It’s a more natural way for your brain to work, and it also takes less energy. Your mind thinks in terms of clusters of information—not sub-subtopics.

4. Break any large project down into even smaller chunks than usual. For example, I had a textbook chapter to write. Tackling one section of the chapter at a time was hard to handle, so I broke each section into smaller bits and wrote one bit at a time. The same principle works for any lengthy report or proposal.

5. When you feel you can’t write at all, stay productive by deleting e-mails, creating invoices and monthly statements, updating your software and doing other tasks that take minimal brain power. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

6. Pay extra attention to your diet. Avoid starches, sugars, junk food and caffeine like the plague. Eat extra protein to boost your energy and your body’s ability to mend itself.

7. Rest as needed. You’ll lose ground if you try to “push through.” 

8. Turn down work if you need to. Better to less and do it well than take on too much and do nothing well.

Here’s to your health, and to better writing!

Wise word choice in writing

November 9th, 2010

You’ve seen it—some well-intended ad or company name that inadvertently sends the wrong message. You either scratch your head or writhe when you read it.

Examples: What do “Drain Surgeons” really work on? And who wants to hire a company called “Off-Duty Chimney Sweep”?

When shopping for clothes, most women are already sensitive enough about their figure and dress size without allusions to their farm-animal proportions at the Dress Barn.

The same applies to product descriptions and so much more. Just think about all the things that a “price reduced” sign in front of a for-sale house could mean.

Let’s compare the words “cheap” and “inexpensive” for a minute. Which would you rather buy and give as a gift: a cheap tea set or an inexpensive tea set? Probably the latter—because of what those words connote.

“Cheap” has many negative connotations: tawdry, shoddy manufacturing, questionable quality. On the other hand, “inexpensive” more likely conjures positive connotations, such as “good value for the money you spend.”

I cringe when I see “cheapest rates” (as in hotels) versus “best rates” or “best values.”

On the other hand, a word like “premier” can mean “outstanding,” “top-notch,” “first-choice,” “expert”—or “too expensive.”

Words can have positive or negative meanings to readers—despite what you intend for your words to convey.

An extra moment of thinking like a reader or a customer can make all the difference in how you present yourself or your company, products or services.

It’s all about people’s perceptions of what your words mean. Dictionaries define meaning and standard usage, otherwise known as the word’s denotation. What people think a word means or signifies is the word’s connotation. Huge difference.

How do you get your intended meaning across?

  • Know your target audience.
  • Remember that their past experiences, backgrounds and more affect their connotations of your words.
  • Steer readers to the right connotation by choosing your words wisely.

Words have power; make them work for you!

Job Fair Tips: Resumes and Cover Letters

September 26th, 2010

September 23 was the first official day of fall. And, on college campuses across the country, fall means more than football; it also means job fairs.

Although there’s a certain “cattle herding” quality to the masses of people hoping for good looks and face time with corporate representatives, job fairs are still a good way to float your resume and make inroads with companies you want to pursue.

Here are resume and cover-letter tips that can help you make the most of that fleeting face time.

Resume:

  • Update it to include your latest work/internship/co-op/research experience that’s pertinent to the field you want to pursue (or that demonstrates transferrable skills for that field). Ditto for recent awards and publications.
  • Some resumes start with an objective. Most people write this so poorly that it hurts instead of helps them. Consider scrapping your objective unless you customize it for each company you want to visit with. Don’t limit yourself by stating some narrow niche field in your objective. 

Cover letter:

When the recruiter takes that huge stack of resumes and letters back to the office, someone else will review it in more detail. Students may overlook the task of writing a cover letter for a job fair because they think they don’t need it when meeting in person with someone (WRONG). Others write a generic cover letter that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Yet, back in the office, someone will read your cover letter before they look at your resume. So make your cover letter shine. Here’s how.

  • Do some research about the company: their corporate mission and goals, how they did fiscally last year, their growth plans, R&D, what they’re engaged in right now. You can find that in their annual report, which is posted on many company websites and is also available in public libraries.
  • Determine what about this company (besides the job itself) makes the company attractive to you. Is it their commitment to a young scholars program or environmental stewardship?
  • Figure out what the company’s needs are, then see how your skills can help meet those needs.
  • Include those specific details in the cover letter. Remember, it’s more about what you can do for them than what they can do for you.

Finally, keep your resume to two pages max and your cover letter to less than a page.

If the company likes you, they’ll call for a phone interview. The next step after that is a face-to-face interview. Don’t worry if this takes months—remember, those companies don’t attend fall job fairs to get immediate hires. The larger companies tend to float “general” positions and see who rises to the top of their list for future considerations. 

Here’s to your success!