April 23, 2013No Comments

10 Ways to Revive Your Business Writing

Who says business writing has to be boring?

OK, probably lots of people do. But anyway, there are lots of easy ways to liven up your memo and report writing which will increase the chances that someone, somewhere will actually read it all the way through. Here's ten of 'em.

  1. Write conversationally. You do it in emails and instant messages, so why not bring that just-between-us-colleagues tone to your reports and memos? Go ahead and use contractions and dashes and ellipses.
  2. Don’t write for your sixth grade grammar teacher. Start a sentence with and or but. Throw in a sentence fragment now and again.
  3. Don’t be afraid to use the word “you.”
  4. Give lots of examples.
  5. Put the most important idea at the beginning. Don’t save it until the end because most readers don’t get there.
  6. Use metaphors.
  7. Make every word count. Take a few moments to go through your draft and delete unnecessary words and sentences.
  8. If there’s a simpler word, use it. Don’t utilize it.
  9. Skip including the acronym in parentheses after a name. Your readers are smart enough to figure out that the National Society for Acronyms will be later referred to NSA without you spelling it out.
  10. Avoid the attorney’s favorite redundancy of “fifty (50).” The number 50 is just fine. If the number is ten or below, use the word instead of the number.

March 20, 2013No Comments

Write to connect, not impress

I’ve spent the past few weeks diving into the principles of Plain English, a movement more than three decades old to promote simple, straightforward writing in government, military and business documents. Not surprisingly, the principles are quite simple -- be clear, be brief and avoid technical jargon. The author of Plain English at Work put it like this -- “Just write the way you talk.”

It sounds obvious, but the need for a concerted effort to promote simple writing is clear if you’re faced with a document or web site filled with overly formal language and jargon. The stubborn persistence of this kind of writing has created a cottage industry of consultants ready to help employees un-learn bloated writing habits that produce sentences like:

"Company A today announced a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency across the company while maintaining its unique capabilities to serve clients, especially in the emerging markets. These actions will result in increased business efficiency, streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies."

Translation: We’re laying off employees to save money.

Regular, spoken English is the language of television, magazines, news outlets, social media (without the abbreviations, so far anyway), hallways and living rooms. It’s accessible, casual and grounded. It’s conversational. Sentences can start with “and” or “but.” Using contractions are essential. Split infinitives are OK. It’s not about impressing the reader; it’s about communicating ideas quickly and clearly.

Concrete examples are essential to clear writing. Overblown corporate speak tells us that “she enhanced domestic security measures” when she really just “locked the front door.”  Or that I am “contextualizing” instead of giving real world examples. It commences rather than begins.

I think it’s an uphill battle, but one worth fighting in the name of greater clarity and sharing of ideas. Plain English makes concepts easier to grasp quickly, much in the same way that info graphics and videos make information more visual. The written word shouldn’t be relegated to a dusty corner in favor of images when we can go a long way toward writing clearly.

 

 

August 16, 20122 Comments

Eating an elephant

Years ago, overwhelmed by a divorce, pending move and a stressful job, I was venting to my parents about my crushing workload.

When I paused the monologue to take a breath, my dad asked, "Do you know how to eat an elephant?"

My teenage years were over, but I still knew how to do a world-class eye-roll. Was he going to try to tell me a joke or something? I just didn't have time for it.

"No," I said, hoping he would quickly answer his own question so I could get back to complaining.

"One bite at a time," Dad said.

Aha. It wasn't a joke. It was advice. And lately, it is advice I've been putting to great use. Because while big goals inspire us, they can also easily overwhelm us after a setback or a tough day. It is the daily manageable goals that get us there.

For example, writers create screenplays and novels by hitting a goal of like 1000 words a day. Addicts stay clean one day at a time. Olympic athletes improve lung capacity and muscle strength through daily training. And I've come to appreciate the beauty of bite-sized goals. They keep me grounded in the present instead of floating in a future of "what ifs." And they still let me have big dreams.

Thanks for the advice, Dad. I'll finish that elephant some day, one bite at a time.

 

January 31, 2012No Comments

RIP Book Publishing

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The big book publishing houses have set the rules since 1947, according to Dan Poynter, but those days are over. Poynter is a self-publishing guru who has been his own writer, editor, publisher, distributer and marketer since 1969, and what is most impressive about him is the way he has kept up with market trends and technologies over those 40-plus years.

I heard him speak tonight in front of more than 100 writers in Culver City at a session of the Independent Writers of Southern California. He was easily 10 years older than half the crowd but far more tech savvy than 80 percent of the population. 

"Don't sell your books in [brick and mortar] stores," he quipped. "They won't be around to pay you for them." 

Poynter's specialty is non-fiction publishing, and that is how he has made his living -- writing books on skydiving, hand-gliding and now self-publishing. Silver-haired, clean shaven and nattily dressed in a suit with an actual silk handkerchief tucked in the pocket, he seems to actually be one of those people who has turned his passions into a career. And he's happy to help others get there as well.

His advice was geared toward non-fiction writers, and as an aspiring mystery writer, I found some of his assessments of the industry's future very grim. People who are 18-25 years old don't read, he said, so don't write a book and expect them to buy it. Beginning of the end of long-form fiction, I wondered? Maybe I should channel my energy into a screenplay. After all, I do live in LA.

Oh, and the final grim statement--there are 145 million blogs. *sigh* How many readers are there? 

 

March 24, 2011No Comments

Book Review: “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray

Remember being 14? If you need a comic refresher on the drama, pressure, self-doubt, bullying, fear and hormones, "Skippy Dies" is a great place to start. Irish author Paul Murray writes beautifully, humorously and sympathetically about the inner lives of 14-year-old boys and girls residing in a posh Dublin boarding school. He weaves us in and out of the minds and hearts of some twenty characters, most notably Daniel "Skippy" Juster. Its a testament to Murray's writing that the readers continues to turn page after page (and there are 660 pages) even though he or she knows the protagonist dies from the title.

We follow five characters closely, privy to their most intimate thoughts, fears and ramblings, as they navigate through first loves, depression, regret and inertia. Murray reminds me of a favorite teacher, one with an endless amount of arcane knowledge, who can spool together passages on string theory, video game lore, eating disorders, Irish mythology and World War 1 and keep you riveted. 

The theme of this powerful book is the painful entry into the adult world, sadly full of more actuaries and run-of-the-mill teachers than of pop stars, rappers and ninjas. Our glimpse into the adult side of the equation comes through teacher and former Seabrook student Howard the Coward, teaching history as a default career while drifting through a stalled relationship with an American woman. A substitute teacher -- the beautiful Aurelie who inspires a love for geography in her smitten students -- becomes the catalyst for his eventual break-up with the girlfriend and finally, his satisfying journey of through loneliness and childishness to self-discovery. His character reminds of my favorite man-boy protagonists -- Rob Fleming in "High Fidelity" and Will Lightman in "About a Boy," both novels by Nick Hornby. And of course Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up. 

But Howard does grow up, as do the students who are left to pick up their own pieces in the wake of Skippy's death. Ultimately a book of hope and humor and resilience, "Skippy Dies" does not skip the dark matter of teen years -- the sexual abuse, sexting, bullying, drug use. It is as true a picture of adolescence as I've read, written sympathetically but not sentimentally. 

"Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray, August 31, 2010, Faber & Faber. ISBN-10: 9780865479432

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March 16, 2011No Comments

Can the human brain actually calculate risk?

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Japan’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear plant explosions have prompted thousands of news segments and blog posts on risk. Here in Los Angeles, we’re being inundated with risk calculations from experts and officials on a variety of potentialities – the risk of radiation exposure in LA from Japan among them (I was glad to know that risk is deemed "minimal" and "very remote").

 

The problem is that we humans don’t always respond to risk based on facts. According to author David Ropeik whom I interviewed a while back, in most cases we don’t even have all the data to begin with. “Evolution has taught us to protect ourselves immediately, before we have all the facts,” he said. “We are biologically hard-wired to fear first and think second.”

 

This instinctual reaction of fear drives our initial response to a risk, according to Ropeik, whose most recent book is entitled “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” Risk communicators then must try to convince members of the public to override deep instinct in favor of the calculation of probability that exposure to a hazard will result in negative consequences.

 

In addition to trying to persuade someone to change their perception and overcome that initial fear, risk communicators also must battle myriad psychological factors that play an important role in how people view risk. 

 

Thirty years of research in the field of psychology have yielded a body of knowledge about how humans perceive risk.  A species-wide pattern of fear means that most people around the world fear the same things for the same reasons.  And often these fears don’t match the facts.

 

People are always afraid of a risk when it first pops up, according to Ropeik, and less afraid after it has been around a while. Remember fears about radiation from microwave ovens?

 

“We are also always more afraid of an imposed risk that one we choose,” he continued. For example, the dangers of radon gas seeping into homes, potentially causing lung cancer, pose a very scary threat to members of the public because it is imposed.  However, many many more people will contract lung cancer from smoking, but because that is a chosen risk, it is less frightening.

 

People are also less afraid of a risk when they can exert some physical control over it, which explains why bungee-jumping, sky-diving and skiing remain popular sports despite their riskiness.  It also explains why people who are afraid to fly are less fearful of driving the car, despite the much greater statistical risk of dying in an auto accident.

 

Catastrophic risks, such as an airplane crash, strike more fear in the hearts of individuals than do statistically larger risks that affect individuals rather than hundreds or thousands of people at once. 

 

The “dread factor” also plays a role.  “What’s worse,” Ropeik asks.  “Being eaten alive by a shark or dying in your sleep of heart disease?”  If you said the shark, you are not alone.  However, guess which one is more likely, and logically the one you should be more afraid of?

 

We perceive a risk as less negative if it is happening to “them” instead of “us.”  “We see risk through the prism of our vulnerability,” Ropeik said.  “Before 9/11, terrorism was what happened to other people – embassy workers, soldiers, people in other countries.  Now, it could happen to us, in our parks, in our homes, in our offices.”

 

Finally, we are much more afraid of risks to our children than to ourselves.  “What’s worse,” Ropeik asks again.  “Asbestos in your workplace or asbestos in your child’s school?  Our fear goes up if there is a potential effect on future generations.”

 

It may be impossible to change centuries of human evolution and train our brains to evaluate risk unemotionally. But perhaps awareness of our ingrained tendencies can help us take a balanced approach.

January 31, 2011No Comments

How to write a media advisory easy as pie

Whether you’re promoting a pie-eating contest, a press conference on the courthouse steps or a perfume product launch, a media advisory is a great tool for inviting the media, particularly television and radio. I think of media advisories as shorthand press releases – a means for delivering the who, what, where, when and how in a stripped-down format that a reporter can grab on her way out the door and get all the information she needs to cover the story once she is on location.

 

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Typically less than one page long, the media advisory includes contact information, a headline, description of the event including the date and time, a listing of who is involved, the address (include cross streets if you can), and a detailed schedule.  Each of these should be broken into separate sections of your document, like so:

 

HEADLINE 

The headline should be a catchy sentence that captures the essence of your event and conveys a sense of urgency.  Highlight celebrities if you’ve got them, or compelling visuals like a children's blueberry pie eating contest or hot air balloons taking off.

 

WHAT

Describe the event in one or two sentences here.

 

WHO

List the VIPs who have been invited and/or are confirmed to attend. This can mean your corporate CEO, the mayor, the local weathercaster or a skateboarding cat. This is also a nice place to make sure to give kudos to anyone you want to pay special attention to.

 

WHEN

Date and time. Include a detailed schedule if you can do it in a few lines, so that reporters, who are often crunched for time, can easily tell when the pie-eating contest starts.  For example: 

SCHEDULE

9 to 9:30 a.m. CONTESTANT CHECK-IN

9:30 to 9:40 a.m. OPENING REMARKS BY MAYOR SMITH
9:40 to 9:45 a.m. REMARKS BY CHAIR OF PIE-EATING CONTEST

9:45 to 10 a.m. INTRODUCTION OF CONTESTANTS

10 a.m. PIE-EATING CONTEST BEGINS
11 to 11:30 a.m. WINNER AVAILABLE FOR ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS

If there is coffee and, er, pie available for reporters, say so. Don’t be shy. A good PR person is not afraid to use free food as a selling point.

 

WHERE

This is where to put the location details. Include the place name, street address, cross streets, landmarks and parking information here. If you have special parking for the media but not for the public, make that very clear here.

 

Still got space on the page? Then use it to describe the visuals if it is not obvious from the headline and description. Or include a sentence or two about why your company is sponsoring the event. Close with your organization’s boilerplate info, and distribute to assignment desks.

 

December 30, 2010No Comments

Writing a news release that works

Despite widespread reports of its demise at the hands of social media, the news release is not just alive, but relevant. Its basic format continues to be an important way to distribute content to both online and traditional media.

 

The same principles that scored publicity for “Mad Men” still work today -- a good news hook, attention-getting headline and well-written copy. What has changed are the distribution channels. Ten years ago, PR people aimed for a front-page story in the print media, which would have then fed the next day’s local television and radio news. Today, a good PR person may still target traditional media but would be foolish not to include online media, bloggers, Twitterers with Klout, and curators of interesting content.

 

The good news is that traditional and new media want the same thing -- content that is tightly written, timely and topical. Below are some tips for writing a professional news release with universal appeal.

 

Create an eye-grabbing, descriptive headline. “Vehicle Thieves Rarely Take a Holiday” is a clear and concise headline from a release issued on December 28 by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. What is it about? A report that found the highest number of vehicle thefts on New Year’s Eve and Halloween.

 

Write using the inverted pyramid format. Fill your first paragraph -- also called the lead -- with the story basics. You want to spark the reader's curiosity with either the conclusion or the “who-what-where-when-why” up front, and work in the supporting information and background in subsequent paragraphs.

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Back in the days when newspaper layouts were pasted together by hand instead of laid out on a computer, an editor looking to shorten an article would just cut from the column end, where the least important information was placed. The inverted pyramid format is still valuable in online media, because if someone only reads the first paragraph and doesn’t either scroll down or click through, they still get the gist of the story. Notice how this release about healthy holiday tips summarizes its main point in the first sentence, and then works in all the relevant details in the second.

Enjoy the season's meals without the guilt this year. The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is continuing to help you make healthy choices this holiday season with 15 easy-to-follow tips, crafted by NFCR spokesperson Chef Charles Phillips of Nashville's 1808 Grille.

 

Include a quote from your organization’s spokesperson. Quotes often appear in the second or third paragraph of a news release, and are a great way to insert points-of-view, claims or opinions. 

"Electronic waste is a very serious environmental issue, both because of toxic materials it contains and because of the lack of options for safe disposal of this equipment," said Lower East Side Ecology Center executive director Christine Datz-Romero. "That's why we make sure that the recyclers we work with guarantee that all of the material we collect is safely recycled in the United States, instead of being exported to the developing world or incinerated stateside."

Include your organization’s background at the end. In PR, we call this the boilerplate, or a sentence or paragraph that describes an organization and is included at the end of all news releases. Include a link to your website for more information.

Since 1999, Red Gate Software has produced ingeniously simple tools for over 500,000 Microsoft technology professionals worldwide. We currently specialize in MS SQL Server, Oracle, .NET and email archiving tools.

Include contact information. In case the reporter or writer has questions, news releases usually include in the header the name, office phone number, cell phone number and email of the organization’s PR person or most appropriate subject matter expert.

December 9, 2010No Comments

Get past write fright to the first draft

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Write fright, or fear of the blank page, is hard to overcome. The white page on the computer screen seems naked, and my attempts at sentence fragments, much less paragraphs, offer it as much cover as a fig leaf. Maybe I should use a larger font. Try double spacing.

 

More experienced writers offer abundant counsel on how to handle write fright, and it usually boils down to the simple imperative. You wanna be a writer? Then write.

 

In her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote that an aspiring writer must free herself to write shitty first drafts. Just get the words down on paper. Revise them later. No one has to see the first draft but you. But you have to get the words down to have something to work with.

 

And you have to write every day, according to author Walter Mosley. In a timeless “Writers on Writing” article from the New York Times, Mosley likens writing a novel to gathering smoke.

 

I read that line and feel a wrenching inadequacy. I’ll never be able to write like that. An image that perfect must have sprung from his creative mind fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. I pause, remind myself that I could be wrong. Maybe it actually took him two months, seven drafts and a helping of self-doubt before he got it exactly right. Maybe he first thought that writing is like herding cats or climbing a mountain, comparisons he dismissed as clichéd.

 

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“Ideas are smoky concepts liable to disappear at the slightest disturbance,” Mosley wrote. Gathering that smoke onto the page every day keeps the story alive in your mind, and helps it form into something larger and more substantial.

 

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his 2006 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, talked about sitting at his table, “for days, months, years slowly adding new words to the empty page.”  As a bridge or wall is built stone by stone, a writer uses words, he said. This imagery of words as stones comes alive for me, for writing seems like architecture and construction to me.  A combination of form, structure, detail and place.

 

My first stumbling block is that damned internal critic, who delivers writing critiques with shrill contempt. A writing instructor from hell. Where a wonderful  fiction writing instructor (like author Robert Eversz, who turned me on to the Mosley and Pamuk pieces I referenced above) would gently prod his students to think about the scene objectives, in my head I hear a sneering and rhetorical “what on earth is this scene about?”The answer, according to that critic, is that it is a scene about nothing, and I should give it up entirely because any good writer would, could, should write a brilliant first draft of any scene.  I relayed a less intense version of this to Robert, who told me to turn that voice off. If only I could find the switch. But I’m trying—at least for the first draft.

 

So I will take their advice and write. But more importantly, I will fill that blank page with ideas and words, remembering that I am travelling down a path already well-worn by successful and aspiring writers.  

 

November 19, 2010No Comments

Funny Writing Has Attitude that Binds

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Like a stand-up comedian, a writer who wants to make a reader laugh out loud uses attitude combined with observation. 

Usually, this means departing from the norms of polite conversation or objective writing, and incorporating feelings, opinions and (mis)perceptions to grab the reader's attention. Observation provides the topic; attitude makes compelling writing.

Judy Carter, author of "The Comedy Bible," put it this way: "...people tune in to hear someone say all the stuff that most people are too polite (or scared) to talk about--the things that scare them, that are stupid, and so on." No one wants to hear about what writers or comics love. 

Don't take that to mean that this writer is condoning outrageous statements made for shock value. Funny writing must have attitude, but cheap shots or rants are not the only means to that end. A good way to bring attitude into your writing is to mine your life experiences for material. Blunders, misunderstandings and being at the wrong place at the wrong time are a rich vein -- and all of us have experienced doubt, confusion and embarrassment, so we can relate. The television show Seinfeld made us laugh about how we react to office birthday cakes, puffy shirts and ugly babies. Memoirist David Sedaris wrote humorously about his job as one of Santa's elves at a department store and a visit to a nudist colony, finding the funny through his acknowledged self-consciousness and powerful observation of the strange details of each.

It is disconcerting to talk to someone on the phone and know that he is naked. Every now and then I might call a friend who says, "You caught me on my way to the shower," but that's different. The man at the nudist colony sounded as though he had been naked for years. Even his voice was tanned.

David Sedaris, Naked (New York: A Back Bay Book, 1997)

Often, finding the funny means taking a magnifying glass to our own flaws and goofs and then sharing our opinions about those with the reader. This takes both confidence and humility. And fortitude. In a 2009 interview on National Public Radio, writer/director Harold Ramis said that a certain amount of alienation is helpful for a comic posture. "You need to feel like an outsider and a bit of a loser to get up there and so assertively express your own shortcomings and talk about your body parts or your most painful and difficult relationships," he said. Focusing on commonalities when creating fresh and authentic observations for characters can help writers avoid crossing over into mean-spirited humor. The key to getting the big laughs is to make your observations the kind that bind us humans together, not the ones that pull us apart. More work, but worth it.