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.

What skills does an information designer need?

All of the people in my family are quite good at criticising other people, and that includes me.

It’s not our intention to be mean, we are just really good at noticing things. We’re especially good at pointing out spelling errors and the misuse of words.

The downside of this is that my comments can sound a bit harsh, especially when I am marking assignments or reviewing the design of a website which someone has been lovingly creating.

This happened to me at work last week. I was so busy giving the person good advice (to be fair, they did ask me for my honest feedback)that I forgot to be sensitive to the fact that few of us can really tolerate criticism unless it is delivered with gentleness.

I’m often asked to review or comment on other people’s work and I try to remember that my job is to help people improve their work, rather than leaving them feeling like it has been chopped to pieces. But sometimes I fail and I need to work on this.

So while designers need to know about typography, colours, fonts, visual hierarchy and plain English, they also need to be good communicators and that’s a skill that requires endless practice.

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Why do people share?

Last night I spoke at a community forum about the impact of digital technology on society. What a lovely bunch of interesting people were there. They asked such good questions.

A couple of people asked me why I started this blog and although I have written about this previously, I thought it might be interesting to look at the reasons why so many people love blogging. On the WordPress platform alone, there are 72 million blogs with over 400 million readers, so it’s quite a popular pastime.

Four reasons why people blog

Many people blog for validation. They want the world to know they exist and they want to get feedback from others to confirm that their ideas and opinions are valuable. People who write blogs for this reason can be a bit obsessed with the number of subscribers that they have. The more the better.  I don’t fit into this category, although I am always thrilled to bits when someone new signs up. I may not have a huge number of subscribers, but I am convinced you are all intelligent and interesting, and that matters more to me than sheer numbers.

Then there are the social bloggers. These are people, for example young mums, who might be find being at home with a baby a bit isolating. I saw a lovely ‘mummy blog’ the other day where women were sharing ideas about what to cook for dinner that would be easy, nutritious and that the kids would actually eat. This type of blog serves an important social function and can help get people make contact with others who might be in similar situations.

Thirdly, there are people who blog to promote themselves or their product. Sometimes they provide really good information and sometimes it’s just a thinly disguised sales pitch.

Other people blog because they love sharing information and ideas. This is the category I fit into. I think it comes from being a teacher – when I read something interesting, I often think ‘who can I share this with?’ and this blog gives me the perfect platform. Blogging also gives me the chance to clarify my thoughts and practise my writing, but most of all it gives me the opportunity to encourage other people to learn new skills and expand their horizons.

Should you start a blog?

It can be time consuming, but it’s fun and rewarding.  It’s also really easy, so if you think you have something to say you should give it a try!

 

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A CURIOUS MIND IS A WONDERFUL THING

A CURIOUS MIND IS A WONDERFUL THING

I’m just about to do something really brave (or silly, depending on how you look at it).

I’m transferring my blog from this WordPress.com site to a self-managed host. This shouldn’t affect you and shouldn’t make any difference to how we communicate, but it’s risky because I am quite likely to muck it up and lose all of my subscribers (that’s you) in the process. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does I wanted to thank you for coming along with me on my little journey over the past 12 months or so. It’s been fun and I’ve learnt a lot.

I thought that I would end the year with a few thoughts and some suggestions for next year, but first of all I might explain what I hoped to achieve by starting this blog and why I am moving it.

WHY DID I START THIS BLOG?

About 12 months ago I started running a training course called design basics (focused mainly on helping people to improve their PowerPoint slides) so I had plenty of ideas and content to share. Starting a blog seemed an ideal way to connect with a wider audience as well as providing some ongoing tips and advice for people who had completed the course. I decided that it was better to jump right in, rather than just thinking about it and WordPress.com made this quick and easy. It’s user friendly and it’s free. I recommend this as a way to start if you want to share your ideas or practice your writing.

I’ve covered a number of topics over the year, ranging from tips on clear writing, using colour and some other advice about improving your communication skills. I have a background in teaching communication skills, so communication design is just an extension of my interest in this area. I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments and feedback although at times, I have been at a bit of a loss to know what you might find useful and interesting, so I’ve just posted about stuff I find interesting and hope that it strikes a cord with some of you.

My main aim is to help people communicate clearly, whether this be in a PowerPoint presentation, a written report, a diagram, a graph or an image. I often observe people struggling to deliver information effectively and I really believe that there are some simple ways to achieve this. I think that writing and speaking clearly is important, especially when you are delivering messages that make a difference to people’s health, safety or wellbeing. I guess you could say that I am on a quest for clarity, both in what I do and say and in helping other people to be clear.

WHY AM I MOVING THIS BLOG?

The time has come to play with the grown ups and explore some new pastures. Moving this blog to a self-hosted site will give me more freedom to try new things and will be more of a challenge for me as I’ll need to learn a little bit more about websites, coding and other mysteries that pertain to managing a website. It’s an area I want to explore and I think jumping right in and giving it a go is a wonderful way to learn. It may be a disaster, but I hope not.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Do you have something exciting planned for 2013? I hope so. There are so many interesting things to do and learn that I can’t imagine how anyone could be bored. I recently discovered a wonderful organisation called Coursera where you can enrol in an online course on just about any topic that interests you. The courses are delivered by leading universities in the USA and are absolutely free. Amazing and wonderful.

I’d like wish you all the best for the year ahead and I hope you maintain your curiosity about the world and set yourself some goals that are achievable and fun.

See you next year!

What we have here is a failure to communicate

English: Luis Javier Rodriguez Lopez, done for...
English: Luis Javier Rodriguez Lopez, done for wikipedia, might be found at my webpage in a future; http://www.coroflot.com/yupi666 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early in my career as a teacher someone once told me that if my students didn’t understand what I was telling them then I should accept some of the responsibility for this. I have never forgotten this advice, even though it doesn’t stop me from being frustrated when I can’t seem to get my point across.

It’s easy enough to blame other people for their failure to understand what you are saying, it’s much harder to stop and reflect on what is causing the problem. Maybe it’s you?

I know that sometimes I am not very clear. Without wanting to make excuses, there are a lot of reasons that this can happen. Here are a few:

1. You’re not really clear what your point is. (I know I have talked about this before, but honestly it is a really common cause of miscommunication). It’s not so much that you are confused, it may be because you haven’t had a chance to really think through your point of view so you’re not really sure where you stand on the issue. If this happens, consider asking people to come back later when you have had a chance to think. This is actually quite flattering to the other person. Giving yourself a chance to think before you talk will give them a more considered and thoughtful response, and it will certainly stop you from sounding garbled.

2. Wrong time and place. Choosing your moment carefully. If you have something really important to say then you need to make sure that the person receiving the information is in a receptive frame of mind. Try to reduce distractions so that you have as much of their attention as you can.

3. Avoid jargon and buzzwords. There is a lot of evidence to say that if you use jargon and buzzwords, people just switch off. You might as well be talking to a brick wall.

4. Try and make your message relevant to the other person. People are basically interested in themselves so if you can frame your message in a way that relates to their interests and experiences they will be more engaged and more likely to listen to what you have to say.

5. Lay out the context and relay your information in an orderly fashion. I had an experience with this yesterday. I went to a meeting with a colleague who had an idea to sell me. He launched into the details without giving me any context or background for his ideas. He was well and truly up to speed with his proposal, but he didn’t bother to convey this to me and I was soon lost and confused. Eventually I just stopped listening. Spending a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting explaining the content and background (briefly) ensures that everyone in the room is at the same point and can move forward together. Try to avoid leaving people behind or you will lose them.

These are just some simple ideas that are worth are try. Next time you are trying to explain something important or complex or both, try to control the time and place that the conversation is going to happen. Be as well prepared as possible and reduce the number of external distractions for your audience. Give your audience a brief overview of the issue and the context so that know what you are talking about and above all, use simple clear language.

Let me know if you have any successes (or failures). I’d love to hear from you.

Should you worry about personal branding?

I overheard a colleague being very dismissive about a personal branding course that is being offered to staff at my workplace. The aim of the course is to get people to think about their skills and the way that they present themselves to prospective employers. Whilst it’s not my intention to start giving advice about employment issues, I do think that the topic of branding is relevant to presenting.

Developing your personal brand is about being consistent and credible and these are two things that are really important when you are giving a presentation.

When you are delivering a presentation, you really do want people to take you seriously. This means that your messages must be clear, concise and coherent and you also need to look and sound confident about your topic. This is not easy for those of us who get a little bit nervous when speaking in front of a group. My advice is to rehearse your presentation in front of a friend or colleague that you trust. If you really can’t bear the idea of rehearsing in front of other people, do it at home in front of your dog or budgie. Not only will this give you more familiarity with your material, it will give you an idea of how long your talk will go for and if it flows well. You don’t need to be word perfect. In fact this can often make you sound stilted and over-rehearsed.

Your credibility will be enhanced if you can manage to look reasonably comfortable (my advice is to fake it ’til you make it). Don’t make your audience feel nervous on your behalf. You want them to relax and be interested in your message, so you need to convey the idea that you are in control. There are lots of books about presenting that you can check out, but my best advice is to:

1. Craft clear and concise messages.

2. Be very familiar with your content.

3. Rehearse (but don’t over rehearse).

4. Get to the venue as early as you can.

5. Be enthusiastic about your topic.

6. Relax, breathe and smile – once you get going you’ll be fine, so let your personality shine through.

Three tips for clear writing

I don’t really like the term plain English. It reminds me of a plain girl or a plain biscuit, a bit dull and unimaginative and slightly boring. Clear writing on the other hand, can be descriptive, even whimsical but it must be understandable (and therefore clear).

The need to write clearly is more than just a hobbyhorse of mine. I think that we have a responsibility to write as clearly as we can. As Tim Phillips says in his book, Talk Normal.

‘If you’re in government, isn’t it your responsibility to make your language accessible to all the people who need to understand you?’

http://talknormal.co.uk/the-book/

Yes, yes and yes!

It just so happens that I do work for a government organisation and I agree 100% with this sentiment, however it can be hard to write clearly, especially about complex or serious topics.

It’s easy enough to write something simple and engaging about a new product or service – all you really need to do is write about what it can do to make your life better. Explaining the intricacies of a piece of legislation or writing a paper about a complex policy issue is much more difficult. This is where all the big words come into their own don’t they?

My friend Megan says that there are expensive words ($5000) and cheap words ($500) and that you should use the $500 words as much as possible. These are words that are short and to the point. These are not weasel words*. You should only use a $5000 word when no other word accurately conveys the point you are making.

But, I hear you cry… this is easy to say and hard to do. Well, yes and no. Here are a few pointers for you to think about when you are writing.

1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR MESSAGE

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to say. By this I mean that you should know exactly what the point is that you are trying to make and not be afraid to express it as simply and clearly as possible. I read a lot of documents where people just ramble on. It’s pretty obvious that they are trying to work out what their point as they write.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your thoughts on paper in order to find out what you really think; it just means that all those words don’t necessarily need to end up in the final version.

2. VARY YOUR SENTENCE LENGTH

Secondly, you should try to vary your sentence length. It makes your writing easier to read if you use both long and short sentences. A lot of writing is unclear because the sentences run on and on forever. Keep some of them short. Yes, really short.

You should try to keep to one idea per sentence. Long dense sentences always lead to fuzzy writing.

3. THINK ABOUT YOUR READER

Thirdly, always think about your audience. Do they know what that acronym stands for? It can be terribly confusing for people when you use terms they aren’t familiar with. Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence by using language they don’t understand. Of course if you are writing for an audience of technical experts, feel free to talk the talk. They won’t mind. Just be very careful that you don’t alienate your readers by using jargon.

Are there any writing problems that you face that you would like to discuss? For example, do you need to give other people feedback on their writing and don’t know how to go about this?

I’d love to hear from you.

An image to illustrate weasel words on Wikiped...

* ‘Weasel words’ is the title of a book by Don Watson and refers to words and phrases that are over used in the corporate world and essentially meaningless (for example: innovative approach, optimisation, going forward). See http://www.weaselwords.com.au