Writing better content

Writing better content

Over the past few months a lot of free courses have been offered on the internet, so I’ve been madly signing up for things that interest me. These are mainly around writing and using social media, so I’ve got a thousand ideas about things I could do, but of course I’m still nervous about doing anything in case it fails and I look like an idiot.

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t really matter if things don’t work out, but if you’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to make things perfect (or at least pretty good), then it’s hard to really adopt the idea of sharing a minimum viable product. It doesn’t come easily to put something out there until you’ve double and tripled checked that it looks good and doesn’t have any errors.

But the reality is that even when you check everything carefully, you still make mistakes. It can be incredibly hard to see your own errors, even though it’s pretty easy to spot mistakes in other people’s work. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed family who are quick to let me know if I’ve made any major blunders, or even just repeated words which I have a habit of doing.

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting webinar on content writing, so I thought I would share some of my key take-aways in case they are relevant to you and your writing,

  1. Manage your time. Try to draft your work quickly so that you can spend the bulk of your time on editing and polishing. You can’t edit your words until you’ve got something on the page to work with.
  2. Edit your work but don’t keep polishing it endlessly. Focus on getting it finished. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can spend a lot of time and energy fiddling around with the wrong thing, for example drafting and re-drafting the first sentence, only to chop it off before you hit send.
  3. Don’t try to impress people with your writing. Instead focus on what your post/email/report is trying to say. You should have a clear message, so put your energy into working out what that message is.
  4. Write in your natural voice. I find it very odd when people write in a stuffy, overly wordy way, when this is not the way they usually talk. Write as simply as possible. I promise you that no-one will complain.
  5. Bounce back quickly from mistakes. Make a checklist of your frequent errors and check your work before you publish. Examples might be using one particular word too often. Keep a sticky note on your desk to remind you how to spell any words that you commonly misspell.
  6. Ask someone else to read your draft. As I mentioned earlier, it can be almost impossible to see your own errors. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to check your work.
  7. Try leaving your work to marinate overnight. Sometimes the right words just jump into your brain when you stop thinking so hard. If possible, leave your work as a draft and come back to it the next day. You will usually be able spot any errors or fluffy bits straight away.

Thank you for reading my blog. If you like it, please share this post with a friend or colleague.

And if you see any errors, please let me know.

One thing you can do to improve your writing

One thing you can do to improve your writing

A few weeks before I started my long leave, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work and I had an overwhelming desire to go in and order scrambled eggs and a large flat white and just sit outside in the sunshine watching the world go by.

It seemed like a much better option that going into the office and facing a barrage of emails and work requests, and it was at that precise moment that I realised that I was really a bit over going to work.

Every Monday morning I would sit at my desk and feel slightly overwhelmed at the big “to do” list in front of me, especially since many of the tasks seemed to be the same things that I’d been doing for the last few years, with very little impact.

I started to realise that perhaps I was just going around in circles, preaching the same sermon about the need to simplify projects, systems and services to a mostly deaf audience.

No matter how many times I tried to say that we were making things too complicated, it seemed that there was a strong desire for wordy inaccessible documents and for reports so obscure and protracted that only the most enthusiastic reader would ever make it to the end.

Making things simple and understandable has been my whole life’s work and in reality, it’s been a failure. People like things to be complicated. It looks impressive. It makes you seem smart.

It’s bad for the community, but really, who cares? Apart from the community of course.

Recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the new strategic plan for our local Council. She had bravely tried to read it (and make sense of it) and was despairing about the poor writing, overuse of trendy meaningless terms and general inaccessibility of the document. It was obvious that although the stated purpose of releasing the draft document was to encourage “community consultation” it was written in a way that clearly prevented this.

We had an interesting conversation about whether these documents are written with the intention of being deliberately obscure, or whether the tendency to write like this is driven by ignorance, or just people thinking that this is what you are supposed to do. A combination of one or all of these I suspect.

My friend highlighted the extensive use of ‘weasel words’ (words that people use when they are trying to avoid telling the truth) and also sent me a link to the awesome bullshit generator which I love for its awfulness.

The tool is designed to generate bullshit for your next meeting, proposal or interview with your boss. You press the button and out comes a stream of unintelligible, meaningless phrases that sound oh so impressive but mean absolutely nothing. What’s really alarming is that I’ve actually seen some of these phrases used quite recently.

I know that writing is hard for many people. The rules of grammar are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and many people feel daunted by the prospect of writing long documents.

But there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing straight away.

Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.

Don’t fuss about your writing style. Don’t try to sound smart. Just say what you want to say.

Often when people write very wordy documents, I ask them to tell me (out loud) what they are trying to say. Unsurprisingly, they are often able to articulate that very clearly. Then I say, just write that down. What you just said was clear and concise, so just say that. It’s easier than you think.

Editing is a gift to your readers

Editing is a gift to your readers

My plan to do more writing during my six months off has been going quite well. Some days I’m quite productive while others are spent procrastinating by doing avoidance activities such as ironing and cleaning out cupboards.

I love the peace and quiet, but sometimes I feel quite restless. It’s not that I particularly want to go anywhere, I just miss the structure that being at work gives your day. I’m also missing the learning aspects of being at work, so I’ve been entertaining myself by doing an online course in non-fiction writing. It’s a free course on Teachable led by an instructor who is really quite arrogant and rude to his colleagues. I couldn’t bear to work with someone like that, but he does seem to know what he’s talking about. He’s had four books on the New York Times bestseller list, so who am I to criticise?

I’m learning quite a lot. I’m about halfway through, and it’s usually at about this point that I get bored and/or find some kind of excuse to avoid doing the hard graft. Most of the content is delivered as pre-recorded webinars but they are often quite drawn out and repetitious which I find frustrating. My editing background makes me want to snip out the parts where they go off topic or just start waffling on about nothing.

Yesterday I discovered that you can play the videos at double speed which makes it a bit easier to get through the content. I find it easy to listen to audio at a fast speed and still understand what they are saying.

Even though I’m very critical of other people who find it hard to get to the point, it’s something that I know I’m also guilty of. Often this is because I don’t know what point I’m trying to make until I’ve got something down on paper.

Many writers claim that they write to make sense of what they are thinking. The very act of putting something down on paper forces you to get to the nitty gritty of what you are trying to say, but sometimes you have to approach it from a few different angles before it becomes clear, even to yourself. I guess that’s where editing comes in. You should never be afraid to edit out extraneous material, no matter how hard it was to get those sentences out of your brain and down on paper.

When I was working, I was often the recipient of very long emails (brain dumps) where people just put all their thoughts down without any thought for the reader. It always reminded me of that old adage “I would have made this shorter if I’d had more time”. I guess they figured that their time was more valuable than mine, or that I might really appreciate knowing all the details of how they arrived at their final position. Usually I didn’t really care that much, I just wanted to know what they wanted me to do. Cut to the chase! Sometimes the backstory is relevant, but you need to be judicious about which details add value and which are just fluff or a description of your thought processes. This can be hard if you’re not used to editing your work.

If at all possible, I recommend not pressing send on your email straight away or running it past another reader to make sure it makes sense. We used to do this all the time at work and it’s really helpful. A little bit of time gives you perspective.

My point is not to get too precious about your words. If you care about your reader (and you should definitely care) then take some time with everything you write to consider who will be reading it and what it is that you are really trying to say.

Words are power

Words are power

I was in the library last week and an older gentleman came in and demanded that the librarian (a young women) look on the reserve shelf to see if his books were there.

The reserve shelf is right in the middle of the library so that patrons can easily look for themselves so I wanted to say “why don’t you look yourself, you lazy bastard” but I was conscious that he might have disability that prevented him leaning over (unlikely) or he was blind (equally unlikely given that we were in a library, but they do have talking books). After it was established that he did have a book waiting for him he said, “check it out for me”. No please or thank you, which I thought was a little rude, but I guess he was just getting to the point very quickly. On the other hand, good manners cost nothing, as my mother used to say.

It made me think about how frequently we use modifiers in our everyday speech. Modifiers are words that dilute declarative statements and include softeners like “sort of”, “kind of” and “a little bit”. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry” we say “I’m a little bit hungry” or “I’m kind of hungry”. It weakens our language.

In the workplace we rarely we hear women make declarative statements unless they are members of the Executive and I suspect that’s because women on the fast track have done a course called something like Women in Leadership and have been told to be bold and forthright. The rest of us say things like “if that makes sense?” at the end of our sentences or “I’m no expert, but…” at the beginning of our sentences. We think we are being polite, but often we just end up sounding uncertain. It’s not just women who do this, but the fact is that I mostly hear women talking like this which is kind of weird in this day and age.

I work with some brilliant woman who constantly deflect any praise they receive. This is sad because they really deserve to be recognised. Instead they say “it was nothing” (not true it WAS something) or “I couldn’t have done it without my team” when really the team couldn’t have done it without their leadership.

I’m also conscious that people with an academic background are prone to using modifiers. After all, you can lose marks in an essay by neglecting to say “the research says” or “it seems that” before you make an assertion of fact.

For many of us, it’s hard to work out how to sound assertive without being rude and without sounding like a pompous ass.

One suggestion is to be on the look-out for unnecessarily apologetic language. Being simple and clear is helpful. For example, if you are writing an email to someone you don’t know very well, don’t start your sentence with “I’m sorry to bother you”. Just explain who you are and what you want. Don’t waste their time fawning or telling them your life story, just make your writing simple and direct and don’t forget your manners. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

How do you spell that again?

The ability to spot spelling and grammatical errors is both a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful at work when you are asked to proof someone’s report but it can drive your partner crazy. My husband is still annoyed at me for correcting his spelling in a poem that he wrote for me forty years ago and I’m still sorry that I didn’t restrain myself. It was a stupid and unnecessary thing to do and I still regret it.

I have managed to stop myself from correcting the shopping list as there’s really no point and it doesn’t really matter.

IMG_0554
Shopping list

I share this skill/curse with other members of my family, all of whom find it difficult not to comment on errors on signs in public places, for example on menus and the like.

Sign with spelling error

But no-one really appreciates being corrected, and who want to be a grammar nazi? Not me.

On the other hand, spelling can matter a lot in a professional environment. This week I signed up to become an member of an organisation for evaluation professionals and I was surprised to see quite an obvious error in their sign-up form.

It made me pause and think about whether I wanted to join an organisation that could let such an obvious mistake slip through until I realised that the people running the organisation probably never see their sign-up form because they are already members.

If you’re thinking that I should just discreetly get in touch with them so that they can fix it, you are right and I probably will, but it did make me think about how much we judge people by their writing skills.

I’m currently working with a very nice person who has English as his second language. He often asks me to double check that his syntax is correct and that any colloquialisms have been used correctly. I commented the other day that his writing sometimes contains some linguistic oddities which I find charming, but he said that some people don’t find it charming, they just see it as wrong. I guess he’s right, but in reality his writing is almost perfect. Better than most of the things that come across my desk.

Another thing I try to keep in mind is that everyone makes mistakes and that includes me. I was reading a note I wrote for my mother’s funeral the other day and I realised that I had misspelt my sister’s name. Sorry about that Beverley.

It’s never a good idea to be too high and mighty about these things, lest you be hoist on your own petard (thank you Mr Shakespeare for that lovely saying). And God bless whoever (or should that be whomever?) invented spell check.

 

Writing well

I’m currently managing a real live communications team. It’s been a great experience to work with people who care about communicating and in particular, care about writing.

For many people, writing well is not important. Most people don’t view the ability to write well as critical to their career path. They regard writing as something that everyone can do. If you can speak, you can write – right? I don’t think this is true. Good writing is required in every profession.

I come across some very poor writing every day and sometimes my own writing is less than perfect, especially if I’m tired or stressed or in a hurry. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words and put them in the right order. I would never claim that writing is easy, but I am grateful that for me, writing isn’t scary. I know this isn’t true for other people. For them the blank page can be terrifying and being asked to write a report can be overwhelming.

One piece of advice that I always give people is that you should write with the expectation that you will need to revise. Don’t ever expect that your first draft will be perfect. Good writers are good editors. They change, polish and review their work. They know that getting the words down on the page is the hard part, editing and revising is easy once you’ve made a start.

Another tip is to stop thinking that your ideas have to be fully formed before you put them down on paper. Writing is a process of thinking and learning and you don’t need to know exactly what you are trying to say when you write your first draft. You can be ruthless later. And make sure you are, because no-one wants to read your waffle.

The saddest part about managing a team of good writers is that their skills aren’t necessarily recognised by other people in the business. We are frequently asked to publish material that is poorly written or confusing. It’s very frustrating to go back to clients with an offer to improve what they’ve written and be told that they don’t want it changed. They think that we merely want things to be shorter, when we really want them to be clearer.

Good writing isn’t necessarily simple (or simplistic). Good writing is concise, lucid, nuanced and compelling.

 

Don’t be a grammar snob

Grammar policeEvery time I write about language or grammar I worry that people will think that I’m a grammar snob. You know, one of those nasty mean people who delight in pointing other people’s writing errors and mistakes.

I often correct errors in other peoples’ writing, but not because I’m trying to prove a point or to show that I’m somehow superior.

I do it because it’s part of my job and I like to think that I’m being helpful. But am I?

This is a question that troubles me greatly and I know there are times when it doesn’t matter and that I should just restrain myself. My husband is still annoyed about the time that he wrote a poem for me and I corrected the spelling. How awful of me.

People will judge you

I think it does matter when you are writing documents at work because it reduces your credibility if your documents are littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s really just a case of looking as if you don’t care.

I’m fully aware that everyone makes errors when they are rushed or tired. I do it all the time and don’t expect to be humiliated or hauled over the coals for this. I’ve probably made an error somewhere in this post. I usually do…

I try hard never to be cruel or unkind when I’m reviewing documents. Most people are doing their best and want a bit of support, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to let obvious grammatical errors slip by. I figure that if people are asking for help with their writing then they really do want to learn.

I try not to be a grammar snob

I prefer to think of myself as a word nerd – a person who likes words and language in all its forms.

I don’t know that much about grammar actually. I often can’t remember what the parts of speech are called (subject, verb, object, adjective, adverb etc.) although I was pretty pleased with myself this morning when my husband asked me what the word ‘the’ was called and I knew it was a definite article. Actually, I was just guessing, but it turned out I was right. It’s the only definite article in the English language so it’s not that hard to remember.

My mother taught me everything I know

Most of what I know comes from having a mother who insisted that we spoke properly when we were growing up and this has been very helpful over the years. If I’m not sure about something, I just go with my gut feelings and this has been a pretty good policy. Keep in mind that there are also some situations where you can be technically correct according to the rules of grammar, but you will sound like a complete weirdo, so I suggest that you try and stick with the most common usage. Only a grammar snob will pick you up and quite frankly they should find something better to do with their time.

I’d be interested to know if there are aspects of writing that you find particularly challenging?

Being concise is hard work

At my workplace we have a new trend which involves conveying entire concepts and strategies on a single page. This has evolved from the various ‘plan on a page’ and infographic documents that have become commonplace over the past couple of years.

The documents vary in quality. Some look good but are essentially meaningless, and some are ugly but give a fantastic overview of a complex project or proposal. When they are both well-designed and easy to understand, magic happens.

Even though I have a tendency to be super-critical about most of these documents, I am truly excited to see that my colleagues are really knuckling down and have a really hard think about what it is that they are trying to say and how they can best convey their ideas. I saw a fantastic example today which explained (in one page) the contents of two and half folders of information. It was an awesome piece of work and a credit to the author.

It reminded me of the joke about being concise which goes…

I could have made this shorter if I’d had more time.

Being concise forces you to clarify your ideas in way that just doesn’t happen when you have the freedom to write a long document. I’m not against long documents per se, but they can often lead to fluffy writing. Short documents impose discipline. You have to get your ideas in order and provide just the right amount of context for the reader.

This can be really hard work, but it’s worth it.

Cole Nussbaumer has this to say about being concise in her latest post.

There might be a lot you want to say about a given topic, but if you can’t condense it crisply and clearly in a way that can be understood and remembered by your audience, you’ve not positioned yourself for success.

I think this is good advice. Check out the complete post.

Hopelessly addicted to grammar

As a follow-up to my last post about ditching my accountant on the basis of poor punctuation, I’d like to share an amusing post from the Grammarly Blog which will appeal to a lot of my friends (and family) who love language and who champion the proper use of grammar.

I freely admit that I am one of those people who likes to point out the mistakes of newsreaders and radio announcers to anyone within earshot and I fully appreciate that it can be very annoying. It’s nearly as irritating as me correcting the spelling on my husband’s shopping list.

However, those of you who do share my passion and interest in grammar will really appreciate the Grammarly blog. Think about signing up for their weekly newsletter, it’s fun and informative and a great way to learn.

Another great blogger and podcaster is Mignon Fogarty, also known as Grammar Girl. Grammar girl posts short articles on various aspects of grammar and punctuation. Here she is doing a TED talk on why language changes.

Where does this love of language come from?

I’ve had a lot of discussions with my sisters over the years about where our love of language comes from and we all agree that we should thank our mother. Although she left school at a fairly young age, both she and my grandmother were great readers and they passed this on to all the children in the family. We all think it’s normal to visit the library at least once a fortnight and come home with an armful of books. I get slightly anxious when the pile of unread books on my bedside table dwindles to less than two.

This doesn’t explain why we are passionate about grammar in particular. Many avid readers don’t know or care about proper sentence construction and modern writers are much less concerned about the rules of grammar. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell you much about the rules of grammar either. Most of what I know has been learnt by being constantly corrected (thanks Mum) when I was a child. This is the way all the children in my family learnt that it wasn’t okay to say “I been to the shops”.

Good grammar = clear communication

I think that grammar does matter and I’d like to borrow these words from the author William Bradshaw to explain why.

Grammar, regardless of the country or the language, is the foundation for communication — the better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message’s intent and meaning. That is what communication is all about.

I couldn’t agree more.

 

Why I ditched my accountant

I recently decided to give my accountant the flick. There are a few reasons, all of which seem a bit petty in isolation, but together they represent some of the things which work together to give you confidence that a business is well run and can meet your needs.

New brand

A few months ago the business changed their name from CFS Accounting Services to GrowUp Group. The new name really annoyed me. Even though CFS Accounting is a boring name, it’s what I want from an accountant – reliable and conservative. The new name struck me as not very well thought out, unappealing, and slightly offensive. I’m already grown up thanks very much. I’m assuming that they wanted to convey the idea of growth, but it really missed the mark with me.

New location

The business also moved offices and they’re now located behind a coffee shop. There’s nothing wrong with this, but for some reason I find it slightly weird, as if they are hiding. Again, not a very comforting thought. They sent an email to say that they were a little hard to find but they were definitely there, located somewhere in the backroom. They didn’t give any reason why they had moved and I think it’s the third move in the last four years, so that wasn’t very confidence building and I can’t for the life of me work out exactly where they are located even though I know the area quite well.

They can’t write

The final straw was the email they sent me last week along with their newsletter which I haven’t read. I know that I’m a pedant but really, a business should be able to do better than send out an email that reads like this…

As we head into the New Financial Year, we look at the top Small Business 20K deduction questions, the nation are asking. We also show you why it’s not easy financially, being a foreigner, in Australia.

The random commas made me laugh (I’m not as mean as I sound), but the poor writing was just one more reason for me to lose my confidence in them and take my business elsewhere. I’m sure they won’t notice that I’ve gone.