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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Your Audience Rules — or Should

In Writing on August 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I’m not much of a sports fan. I’ve learned the simple rules of soccer thanks to the many years I’ve watched my son play. I get the gist of baseball, basketball, football and golf. But if you move beyond the basics, I’m pretty much lost. When I watch a football game, the most I usually get out of it is the score, unless there is someone there to explain the game at a basic level — a very basic level.

A true football fan, on the other hand, can watch the same game and understand the strategy, the play-by-play and the statistics. He or she can recount plays and explain how they fit into the overall game. He has a deep understanding of what is going on without explanation.

When you write, readers may vary as well. Some will have in-depth knowledge of your subject matter while others may know very little about the topic. Your job as a writer is to communicate clearly with all of your readers without dumbing down the information or overwhelming your readers with too many details. Here’s how:

  • Understand your audience. Before you begin to write, understand who your audience is, their depth of understanding of the subject matter you are writing about, their interest and their purpose in reading what you have written. If your audience is familiar with your topic, you can count on shared knowledge to “fill in the blanks.” If the topic is unfamiliar to your readers, you need to provide more detail. If your audience varies in its understanding, you should provide enough information so every reader can understand the key points you are communicating.
  • Make it easy for your readers to get what they need. Why is someone reading what you have written? What level of detail do they need? If your readers need quick facts, for example, use a bullet format. Make use of subheads and bold and italic type to make key points stand out. If you need to provide more detail for some readers, use a traditional journalistic style, summarizing the important points in the first paragraph with supporting details in later paragraphs.
  • Write clearly and succinctly. Writing is a thought process. To write clearly and succinctly, you must have a firm grasp of the key points you want to make before you start writing. After you draft an article, edit it carefully for content, grammar and style. When it comes to writing, less is more. If one word conveys what you want to say, don’t use two. Eliminate jargon.

Bottom line — write for your audience for optimum communication.

Just Keep Going

In Writing on August 9, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I just returned from a wonderful family vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you have never been to this national park, it is well worth the visit whether you explore the park from the comfort of your car or on foot. Each time we hiked, we found natural treasures along the way from cooling waterfalls to wildflowers, towering trees to wildlife.

Unfortunately, however, I am not an avid hiker. I hike only occasionally, generally while on vacation, so while I was more than willing to begin, my stamina is probably not what it should have been for some of the hikes we chose. Needless to say, after a while, my pace slowed down and hiking became more of an endurance sport than a fun activity. I could feel myself gritting my teeth, willing myself forward because I refused to stop before I got to the end of the trail. But at times, I must admit, the thrill was gone.

One day we decided to hike to Ramsay Cascades, the highest waterfall in the park. It’s an eight-mile round-trip hike and the trail climbs about 2,400 feet. The end of the trail is a rock scramble. By the time I reached that part of the trail, I really just wanted to  stop. The thought of scrambling over rocks to reach our destination was a bit more than my urban mind and body could tolerate. As I was scouting out a resting place, a couple passed by on their way back from the falls. They assured me that while the rest of the trail was more challenging, it was doable and well worth the trip. Sure enough, in a few moments, I reached Ramsey Cascade. The view was breath-taking. More than that, I felt a real sense of accomplishment even though I had found muscles that I never knew existed.

So, what does hiking have to do with writing? There are probably many lessons I could draw from my hiking experience, but here’s what really sticks in my mind — just keep going. When writing gets tough, keep at it. Don’t let distractions side track you. The hike to the end is well worth the pain, whether you are writing a book, a poem or a business report.

The Fine Art of Mulling It Over

In Effective Communication, Writing on July 21, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Mulling it over When I was in grade school eons ago, teachers were quick to admonish us when they caught us daydreaming — staring out the window, seemingly thinking about nothing in particular and certainly not working on the task at hand. They told us that we were wasting time, time that we would never recapture. But were we really?  Interestingly, after working as a professional writer for more than three decades, I find that daydreaming or unstructured thinking is an essential ingredient of good writing. When daydreaming is coupled with “mulling it over,”or structured, deep thought, it’s an unbeatable combination for writing better and more quickly.

I’m not sure why this works or how it works, but I do know that I do some of my best writing when I am away from my laptop, doing something that has nothing to do with writing. This makes sense because writing is not about filling paper or your computer screen with words. Writing is a thought process. Before you can find the right words to write, you need to understand why you are writing and who your audience is. You need to brainstorm ideas, research what you don’t know and organize your thoughts. Then it’s time to start writing.

How does this work? Well, here’s how this particular blog entry was written. A few days ago, while I was taking my morning walk, I had the idea to write a post about “mulling.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “mulling” as thinking something over “deeply and at length.” It’s an essential part of writing but one that people often try to skip to save time. When I got home, I jotted the idea down and stuck it in a file with other ideas for blog posts.

Yesterday afternoon, I started scoping out the main ideas of the post, which gave me last night and this morning to think about it. While watering the garden this morning, I started mulling over the article and jotted down key ideas when I got to my office. I focused on the key point I wanted to make (thinking is critical to writing) and how I could best engage readers in the topic (starting with a story). I finally decided to use this post as an example so my idea would be more concrete. I quickly drafted and then edited the post several times.

The next time you are stuck when you are trying to write, give yourself some time to think. This isn’t a luxury and it isn’t a waste of time. It’s a critical part of the writing process. Bottom line —  think before you write and let your mind, not your fingers, do the writing for you.

When do you do your best thinking about your writing? Share your thoughts — and thanks for reading.

Copyright 2011.  Joan B. Marcus

How It All Began

Writer’s Block: What To Do When the Words Won’t Flow

In Writing on July 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

A few months ago, I started writing an article for my newsletter. I knew what I wanted to write about, I understood my audience, I had completed the research and I had organized my ideas. But the words just wouldn’t flow. I had one false start after another and grew more and more frustrated as time slipped away. I knew that the article was going no where and that I really needed to do something different to unjam my thoughts, but I was too stubborn to give up. And so I continued writing and hitting the delete button, wasting way too much time. This was writer’s block at its finest. Finally, in total frustration, I went to find something to eat, anything to get away from my laptop. Within 10 minutes, the opening paragraph had formed in my head.  When I returned to my office, I was able to complete a draft of the article in about 20 minutes.

Everyone can fall prey to writer’s block at some point or another. Generally, writer’s block happens when a person tries to start writing before he or she is ready. Writing is a thought process consisting of six steps. It’s not until the fifth step that you should actually start writing. If you try to skip a step to save time, you often find yourself stuck.

If you have completed the first four steps in the writing process — understand your assignment, brainstorm, research and organize your thoughts —  and you are still stuck, try these tactics to deal with writer’s block.

  • Take a break. Get away from your writing, even if it is only for a few minutes. A quick break from the keyboard can go a long way.
  • Develop a summary sentence. Forget about all the details and cut to the chase. Answer the question, “What am I trying to say?” If you can’t summarize what you want to say, spend more time organizing your thoughts before you start writing.
  • Play with the words. If you have had a few false starts, type a list of key words then start stringing them together. Don’t worry if your sentences make sense. Just play with the words. Before long, you will have a good opening sentence if you are ready to write.
  •  Give yourself a deadline. Some of my best writing is done when I am facing a deadline, either real or self imposed. Not only will this help you break through writer’s block, it also will teach you to write more quickly.
  • Start in the middle. If you find that you can’t write the first paragraph, try writing a different section first. Successfully writing one section or paragraph will often help you get unstuck.

What do you do when your writing gets stuck? Share your thoughts…

Copyright 2011.  Joan B. Marcus

How It All Began

Website Content: Spelling Errors Costly

In Marketing Communications, Writing on July 19, 2011 at 11:45 am

Okay, I admit it. I am probably (okay, I am definitely!) more sensitive to spelling and grammatical errors than the average person. It is one of the drawbacks of being a writer by profession. I go to the movies and catch the typo in the copyright infringement notice. I glance at a billboard and notice the missing or misplaced apostrophe. I log on to a website and decide not to buy anything because I see a string of misspelled words. What???

It’s true. When I visit a website that has blatant spelling or grammatical errors, I rarely make a purchase on that site. In the back of my mind, I am wondering if it is a legitimate site or if my credit card will be taken over by a shopaholic racking up a string of charges to my account. But up until now, I couldn’t prove that spelling and grammatical errors made a monetary difference to a company’s bottom line even though sloppy content obviously does nothing for a company’s image.

Sean Coughlan, a BBC News education correspondent, however, changed all that. He recently reported that online entrepreneur Charles Duncombe analyzed website sales in England and found that “poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for internet businesses.” Duncombe believes that “…misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website’s credibility.”

Do you have difficulty catching spelling errors on your website or in other work?  Here are some of my favorite proofreading strategies:

  1. Proofread a paper copy. Yes, I know. It’s better for the environment not to print what’s on your computer screen. When it comes to proofreading, however, it’s worth the cost. I edit on my laptop and when I think everything is okay, I print out a copy for a final look. It’s amazing how many times I find a spelling or grammatical error.
  2. Use a dictionary. A dictionary is a wonderful thing. I use both online and paper formats.
  3. Read from the end. Start at the end of your writing and proofread reading backwards. This forces you to focus on individual words.
  4. Take a break. It is difficult to proofread something you just finished writing. Take a break from it, even if for a few minutes. You may be surprised at what you find when you read it again.
  5. Ask someone else to proofread for you. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful in catching typos and spelling errors. This is especially important if your work is being printed professionally.
  6. Use spell check as a final check. The spell check feature is a wonderful tool as long as you proofread as well. The spell check function finds misspelled words, not necessarily words that are used incorrectly.

Copyright 2011. Joan B. Marcus

How It All Began

What the Declaration of Independence Can Teach Writers

In Writing on July 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Every Independence Day, my family follows the tradition of reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. It started as civics lesson to help our children better understand the meaning of the Fourth of July, beyond fireworks and barbeques. Today, it just seems a natural part of the holiday, as well it should.

As I was reflecting on the Declaration of Independence recently, I realized that the way this document was crafted provides a wonderful lesson in writing. While few pieces of writing will have the importance of the Declaration of Independence, it is always helpful to learn from a master of the craft. So, thanks to Thomas Jefferson for illustrating the following writing strategies:

  • Before you write, have a strong command of your subject. When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, according to David McCullough in the wonderful book, John Adams, he wrote without referring to books although he did use his own previous writings. Jefferson was immersed in the thought behind the document, including that of British and Scottish writers, and the debate swirling in Congress, which allowed him to write freely.
  • Make every word count. The English language consists of thousands of words, each with a slightly different meaning. This allows a writer to choose the precise word that captures the desired meaning.  When Jefferson’s draft was shared with a review committee (even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with the approval process!), his words, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” were changed to the much stronger, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
  • Write with one voice. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to know that a document of such importance could not be written by committee. Hence, Thomas Jefferson was given the job of drafting with a committee reviewing his work.

On that note, have a wonderful Independence Day and take a moment to read the Declaration of Independence. After all, that’s what Independence Day is all about!

How It All Began

Effective Communication Cuts Through Noise

In Effective Communication, Marketing Communications, Marketing Message on June 29, 2011 at 10:04 am

Several years ago, I was volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class. The room was filled with the noisy energy of more than 20 five-year-olds. When the teacher wanted the children’s attention, she spoke quietly yet firmly, so quietly in fact, that the parent volunteers in the back of the room could barely hear her. The teacher never raised her voice yet in less than a minute, the room was quiet and she began reading a book to the children. Parents marveled, joking that they had to yell to be heard at home. The teacher responded, “I speak softly so the children have to listen.”

In this age of sensory and information overload, how can you “speak softly” to compel your prospects and customers to listen to you? Here are three key concepts to guide your marketing communications efforts.

  1. Deliver an important message. Every time you communicate with prospects and customers, deliver a message that is important to them. Focus on what they need, not what you need. Talk about benefits not features to ensure that all of your marketing messages are customer-centered.
  2. Deliver a succinct message. It’s human nature to tune out someone who drones on and on without making a point. Don’t fall into this trap and lose the attention of your audience. Have a succinct marketing message that clearly explains the customer pain points your product or service addresses, your solution and what makes your solution better than that offered by your competition. Your marketing message is the verbal representation of your brand. Use it consistently and often, just as you do your company logo.
  3. Deliver your message with confidence. You don’t need to barrage your customers and prospects with messages to get through to them. This sends the signal that you really don’t know what makes your product or service important so you are hoping that volume will make up for that information gap. Make the effort to determine who your audience is, the best way to reach them and what they need to hear to purchase your product or service.

How It All Began

Does Writing Matter?

In Branding, Marketing Communications, Writing on June 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Does your ability to write well make a difference in your career? In this age of tweets and texts, does grammar matter?  Or, is writing a dying art?

As a writer by profession, I strongly believe that writing is important to your professional brand. In fact, your ability to write well can make or break your personal brand. Why? Writing is more than just putting words on paper. Writing is a thought process. (See earlier post for more on the writing process.) If you are a sloppy writer, it’s a good indication that you do not pay attention to details and that you aren’t a clear thinker. Not great for a professional brand.

Have you ever received an email that left you wondering, “What does this mean?” “What does the sender want me to do?” Generally, there are two options. You either guess at the meaning and perhaps act on the wrong assumption or you send an email asking for clarification. Your email can lead to a string of emails further clarifying the first message. Either approach leads to wasted time.

When I receive an email that is difficult to read and filled with typos and grammatical errors, I read between the lines and take away these messages: You aren’t important enough for me to take the time to write this clearly. This topic isn’t important to me. I don’t have the ability to think this through. I am careless. I don’t care. Those aren’t messages most people want to send, especially in a professional situation.

So, how does good writing fit in with social media? What about the 140-character tweet or cryptic text message? Many people do treat social media casually and fail to realize the importance to their professional brand. If you are using social media in a business situation, however, you are being judged by your words. In fact, people may only know you based on your posts, comments and profiles. Bottom line, if an idea is worth sharing, take the time to write your thoughts well.

What is your pet peeve when it comes to writing? Feel free to post a comment. Thanks!

How It All Began

Tame Grant-Writing Summertime Blues

In Effective Communication, Grant Writing, Writing on June 22, 2011 at 2:00 am

It’s summer and thoughts of lounging at the beach or hiking in the mountains are floating through your head. The reality is you are stuck in your office writing a grant proposal. Not your idea of a fun summer? Here are some of my favorite ways to speed up the grant-writing process to get you out of the office sooner while still getting optimum results.

  • Find your comfort zone. I can’t stand clutter. It bothers me so much that I find it difficult to work in a messy office. I need a neatly organized space to think straight and write well. On the other hand, years ago when I worked in a news bureau, my mentor had no problem working in an office where files teetered precariously and the floor was filled with papers, books, files and notes. Andy was a fantastic writer, even in this atmosphere. Moral of the story — find your comfort zone, especially when working under a tight deadline, even if it means taking an hour to clean the clutter off your desk.
  • Start with your story. The starting point of your proposal should be your story — your agency mission, the need you serve, the clients you assist, the program you have developed. Understand your story before you answer the proposal questions. This approach helps you provide a cohesive response that will help the funder understand the value of your program and the urgency of your request.
  • Dissect the Request for Proposal (RFP). The bottom line is the funder controls the funding that you want. You need to provide all of the information requested, in the required format. The easiest way to do this is to understand what the funder is requesting. Read the RFP as many times as it takes to understand it completely. For longer proposals, create a summary of the funding request and an outline of the questions asked.
  • Write by topic. The quickest and most effective way to write is to follow the six steps of the writing process. (Click here for more information on the writing process.) Writing is a thought process. To keep your train of thought and to write more quickly, attack one topic at a time and complete that topic in one sitting.
  • Turn off all distractions. Writing is a thought process. When you become distracted by email, texts, phone calls and conversations with colleagues, your thought process is broken. Your writing slows down or grinds to a halt. When you write, get rid of all distractions.
  • Give yourself time to mull it over. When I have a major writing project, I like to prep late in the day in anticipation of writing the next day. If your goal is to complete three sections of a grant in one day, brainstorm, research and outline those sections the day before. This gives you the time to mull over your writing and you will find the process goes much more smoothly when you actually begin writing.
  • Take a break. Everyone gets hit with writer’s block sooner or later. When you are under a deadline, however, you can’t afford to waste a lot of time. If you hit a dead end, take a break. A quick walk or other diversion will go a long way to getting your writing back on track.

How do you streamline the grant-writing process? Leave a post to share your ideas.

How to Find Not-So-Obvious Writing Errors

In Effective Communication, Marketing Communications, Writing on June 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

American journalist, author and grammarian William Safire once said, “If you re-read your work, you can find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing.” Mr. Safire’s tongue-in-cheek comment makes the need for editing obvious. The problem for many writers, however, is finding the not-so-obvious errors. Here are some common writing issues and tips to help you overcome them.

Problem: You proofread your work but still overlook errors.

Solution: It is difficult to proofread your own work and find all of your spelling and grammatical errors. It’s even harder to catch lapses in the logical flow of ideas because you understand what you are trying to say. Before you edit your work, put it aside if only for a few minutes. It is easier to catch mistakes with a fresh eye. For important documents, ask a colleague to read your work.

Problem: You don’t remember the rules of grammar that you learned years ago so you don’t always know when you are writing something grammatically incorrect.

Solution: Many writers cannot cite rules of grammar but intuitively know if something is grammatically incorrect. How? They are avid readers. You can increase your grammar skills by reading well-written newspapers such as The New York Times or The Washington Post. Get in the habit of reading books. When in doubt about punctuation or word usage, consult a style book or dictionary.

Problem: You use the “spell check” function when writing but spelling errors still creep into your work.

Solution: Spell check is a helpful tool but should be only one of the ways you check your writing for errors. The spell check function can overlook subtle mistakes. For example, if you use the wrong word but spell that word correctly, the spell check feature may not bring that word to your attention.

Problem: You have difficulty spelling words correctly.

Solution: Improving your spelling skills does not have to be a tedious process. Playing Scrabble and doing crossword puzzles can help. Reading is another solution. Get in the habit of using a dictionary.

Problem: Even after proofreading an email, you inevitably find a spelling or grammatical error after you push the “send” button.

Solution: If an email is an important piece of correspondence, proofread it on paper rather than on your computer. If that one extra step saves a string of emails explaining what you meant to say in the first place, it is time well spent.